Concerns are being raised about the Waterloo Wellington Community Care Access Centre spending tens of thousands of dollars to attend a conference, sending dozens more delegates than its neighbouring CCACs.

The WWCCAC sent 42 staff and board members to the Ontario Association of CCAC’s annual conference earlier this month in Toronto.

Registration cost almost $650 per person – although the organization says seven of its staff members were given complimentary passes – and staying at the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel cost more than $300 a night.

In total, the WWCCAC tells CTV it spent nearly $37,000 on registration and hotel stays. The organization would not answer questions about additional costs, such as mileage, meals and parking.

Christine Van Geyn, Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, says the priority for the organization should be providing frontline care, not attending conferences in “expensive” Toronto hotels.

“A lot of Ontarians, when they’re travelling at their own expense or in their private sector jobs, they wouldn’t stay overnight in Toronto if they’re travelling from an hour or 45 minutes away,” she said in an interview.

“It just doesn’t make financial sense to do that.”

Van Geyn says the decision to send 42 people “certainly raises eyebrows.”

In a statement, the WWCCAC defends the choice, telling CTV News, “The annual OACCAC Conference is one of a kind for the home and community sector in Ontario and the premier opportunity to share best practices, research and innovations in patient care across home and community care providers.”

At first, the WWCCAC offered that statement instead of answering any cost-related inquiries, and declined an interview request.

More information about the organization’s spending was provided days later, after CTV News reached out to board chair Brian Cowan.

Cowan also declined multiple opportunities for an interview, but did defend the value of the conference in a statement.

“The OACCAC conference is a platform for innovation, research and the sharing of best practice and provides an exceptional learning opportunity for staff, particularly in this time of change,” he said.

The province has said it plans to shut down all CCACs as part of major changes to the health care system, and move services provided by CCACs to Local Health Integration Networks.

A comparison: Neighbouring CCACs

Forty-two delegates is significantly more than neighbouring CCACs sent.

The South West CCAC, which covers a large area including London, Perth and Oxford counties, sent four delegations to the conference. All four were given free passes.

The Hamilton Niagara Haldimand Brant CCAC sent 13 people, but through cost-saving measures such as free passes and sharing passes, only paid for three full registrations, and three single-day passes.

The HNHB CCAC paid for six hotel rooms – four of them for two nights, the other two for one night.

It’s not clear exactly how many rooms the WWCCAC paid for.

The agency said that all of its rooms were booked for two nights, but the only clue as to how many rooms that entails came from a comment that “10 staff shared hotel rooms.”

The WWCCAC also says seven of its attendees, six staff and one board member, didn’t stay in the hotels, choosing instead to commute to each day of the conference.

That suggests that six board members got rooms to themselves.

With 29 staff members staying overnight, that could mean anywhere from 19 hotel rooms for staff if the 10 who shared each shared with somebody else who had a room, to 24 if they shared five rooms between themselves.

A closer look at the costs

In all of CTV’s reporting on the WWCCAC, the organization has never provided documentation to back up its claims. Basic calculations of the costs turn up higher totals than the WWCCAC provided.

The agency claims to have spent $7,000 on board member hotel and registration. However, the WWCCAC also says six of seven board members stayed at the hotel for two nights.

Registration for the conference cost $646, and each night in the hotel cost $307, which adds up to a total higher than $8,000.

Similarly, for the 35 staff members, 28 registrations and 19 hotel rooms – the lower of the possible numbers – add up to a total close to $36,000, while the organization says it spent $29,600.

The WWCCAC declined interview requests which could have clarified the numbers.

Van Geyn says the spending could be received poorly by the public – particularly given one of the keynote speakers of the conference was astronaut Chris Hadfield, whom she points out is “not even related to the health care field.”

“When one of the most frequent complaints you hear about CCACs is that the frontline care is poor, the optics of sending 45 mid-management bureaucrats to a health care conference … are really bad,” she said.

Where did the money come from?

The WWCCAC says the majority of costs were paid by private donations, not tax dollars.

A spokesperson says staff hotel and registration costs - $29,600 – were fully paid for by private donors, and only the board members’ hotel and registration - $7,000 – were funded by taxpayers.