Calls to end for-profit homes for seniors

Heather Wright Photo

For profit-homes say province needs to inject more cash instead

Heather Wright/The Independent

There are growing calls across the province for the Conservative government to solve the crisis in long term care. And one of the main solutions, advocates and doctors say, is ending the system which allows private companies to make money from long term care.

Long term care homes have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. About 70 per cent of the people who have died of the virus lived in long term care or retirement homes.

The first wave of the virus left about 1,400 long term care residents dead – including 16 in Lambton.

The spring crisis highlighted the cracks in the system that health care advocates had been talking about for years; there was simply not enough help in the homes to properly care for seniors, say health care advocates.

The shortages became acute when the province limited employees to working in one home. Illness among workers also created staffing shortages. In some homes, where the situation deteriorated badly, the Canadian army was called in to help. A scathing report told of seniors left alone, without care or even food or water. In other cases, army officials highlighted care workers who didn’t understand infection control or force fed residents to the point of choking.

At the time, there were calls for the province to increase funding to provide more care for residents. The Conservatives committed to four hour of patient care – but not until 2023.

In Lambton, the local Health Coalition joined forces with the Ontario Health Coalition recently calling for the provincial government to act now on that promise.

Family members spoke of seniors left alone for hours, unable to eat on their own, in pain but no one to help them or normally positive happy people asking to die because they were isolated.

Jennifer Penny says her mother, Yvette, had to be placed in Oakwood Retirement Home in the Niagara area when Penny couldn’t care for her after back surgery. Shortly after her mother arrived, the home was in outbreak. Penny only found out through an automated call.

“We spent approximately five days trying to reach someone at the home to find out her condition. Nobody would answer the phone or return voice messages or emails. There were times we would get through to the nurse’s station and they would pick up the phone and hang it back up.”

Penny blames the lack of communication on not enough staff in the for-profit home.

Natalie Mehra, the head of the Ontario Coalition, called on Premier Doug Ford to call in the military to help several homes in the province who are struggling with the virus.

“More than one long term care residents is dying each hour in Ontario, from COVID-19. Our message to premier Ford is if that does not constitute an emergency, what could possibly constitute an emergency,” she said.

The health coalition’s calls for action were followed by a new group Doctors For Long Term Care Justice. More than 400 doctors, mostly in the Metro Toronto area, had called on the government to take action in long term care homes saying they are in humanitarian crisis.

“To date, the Ontario government’s approach to protect LTC residents has been reactionary at best. The lack of transparency and coordinated provincial oversight has resulted in piecemeal interventions that are too late, or sometimes, even non-existent. Proactive implementation of policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are desperately needed.”

The group says many homes have poor infection control practices, the government has delayed in responding to outbreaks in homes, families are often left wondering whether their loved ones are alive or dead, the staff shortage is worsening and the government doesn’t plan to do anything for four to five years.

“We know the ongoing staffing shortages compromise resident care… In many circumstances, residents are also left without basic care, hygiene, food and water. This is a human rights violation.”

The group is calling on the provincial government to use all its powers and resources to hire more qualified staff and start an urgent training and recruitment drive, set minimum pay standards in homes, ensure unrestricted entry to home for family members, and begin the process of removing profits from long term care homes. Doctors4LTC Justice says research has shown for-profit homes fair worse in outbreaks.

That’s a recommendation John Scotland, the head of Steeves and Rozema and the vice president of the Ontario Long Term Care Association, balks at.

Scotland says the industry has been telling the province for years it needs more funding to provide direct patient care. Their concerns were amplified during the pandemic when staffing levels dipped as workers became ill or had to limit their employment to one home.

The strain showed and Scotland says some of the stories which emerged should not have happened. But he says, there is more to the story than the military being sent in to help seniors in crisis. And he blames the provincial government for not acting quickly.

“What led to it get to this? Why was nothing in place in order to support these homes to prevent them from getting into such a dire situation? And only weeks after they went into crisis, did they finally send them help. And why was it the army that had to come in? That should be the story, of the failing (of government) to provide and plan for this in long term care.”

Scotland says private care homes are an important part of the long term care system in Ontario and the province would have to provide $20 billion to buy it out, and that’s before spending any money to improve conditions.

He believes instead the province should be topping up funding for care to the homes, noting the province has strict rules which say money for care does not go to profit.
Scotland adds those who think increasing inspections will improve the level of care are wrong.

“I’m limited how much labour I have, how much care I can provide, based on the funding, you’ve provided me, and then you inspect and find that I failed, because you failed to provide the necessary resources,” he says.

So far, Premier Ford maintains the province has done everything it can to improve the situation in long term care. Instead, it is pushing to have the vaccine given to all long term care home residents to stop COVID-19 outbreaks with all long term care residents getting the first dose by Feb. 5.