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Doug Ford commits up to $1.9 billion a year to give nursing-home residents more hands-on care

Posted: December 18, 2020

(December 17, 2020)

By: Rob Ferguson, Queen’s Park Bureau

Doug Ford commits $1.9 billion a year to give nursing-home residents more hands-on care

Ontario has put a price tag on its promise to dramatically improve staffing in nursing homes so residents can get an average of four hours daily hands-on care by 2025, but critics say most people now in long-term care won’t live to see it.

In a reaction to the devastating toll of death and illness the COVID-19 pandemic has taken in long-term care, Premier Doug Ford said his government will commit up to $1.9 billion annually over four years to hire 27,000 new personal support workers, registered nurses, registered practical nurses and others.

The four-hour-care standard has been recommended for a decade but it took a crisis in nursing homes last spring — where some of the hardest hit lost 80 per cent of their staff, resulting in horrific conditions for residents — for the long-standing problem to come to a head.

“COVID-19 exposed the underlying cracks in an old, tired system,” Ford said Thursday, citing “decades of underinvestment” by governments of all political stripes.

The average is now 2.7 hours of daily care.

New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said the hiring plan is long overdue but will take too long given the urgent state of outbreaks in a number of Ontario nursing homes. More than one in five homes are fighting outbreaks of varying severity.

“Our parents and grandparents are in crisis. More and more are dying every day. Heartbreaking stories of neglect are still rampant,” she added, noting more than 2,500 residents of nursing homes have died in the pandemic.

“We need an emergency mobilization to add thousands of PSWs (personal support workers) to nursing homes right now. They cannot wait.”

The Ministry of Health reported Thursday that 140 of Ontario’s 626 nursing homes are experiencing outbreaks in residents, staff, or both, an increase of five from the previous day. Another 76 residents and 33 staff tested positive for the highly contagious virus.

Eight nursing home workers, mostly PSWs who help residents with tasks like dressing, grooming, toileting and feeding, died as COVID-19 spread rapidly in the close confines of long-term-care homes in the first wave when personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and face shields were scarce.

The Ontario Health Coalition said it expected an immediate recruitment drive like the ones recently undertaken in Quebec and British Columbia, but the plan as outlined only increases care by 15 minutes daily by the next provincial election in 2022, another 15 minutes the next year and then 45 minutes in the final two years.

That is “tone deaf and has no sense of urgency,” said executive director Natalie Mehra, pointing to the average nursing home stay of about two years, which makes 2025 “too late to make any difference in the lifetimes of the people who are living in the homes now.”

The latest push for four hours of care came last month from the commission Ford established in July to examine the impacts of the pandemic in nursing homes.

It will take until 2025 to reach the four-hour standard because workers have to be trained and hired, said Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton, who added the government will set targets along the way.

“There’s an urgent need for personal support workers but there aren’t enough training opportunities,” Ford told a news conference at George Brown College, which has partnered with nursing homes to provide programs.

A study completed earlier this year for the government found high turnover among PSWs, who form the backbone of staff at nursing homes, with many dropping out of training programs or leaving the industry within a few years of entering because of low wages and working conditions.

Ford has acknowledged repeatedly that nursing home PSWs are “underpaid” for the value of work they provide at around $18 to $20 hourly and now has a $3 hourly temporary wage subsidy in place through March.

Horwath said a wage boost needs to be made permanent to have any hope of attracting more into the field, and called for $5 hourly increases and guarantees of full-time work. Many PSWs have to work at more than one nursing home to cobble together a living.

The group AdvantAge Ontario said the Ford government’s plan “has the potential to make a huge difference in the care of Ontario’s seniors.”

It will take the combined efforts of the nursing home industry, educational institutions and the government to make the four hours of care a reality, said Donna Duncan of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, which represents 70 per cent of nursing homes.

But she echoed Horwath’s call for more resources quickly, saying “urgent provincial supports are required today to reduce community spread of COVID-19 into our long-term-care homes to protect our seniors who are most vulnerable to the virus.”

The needs include on-site rapid testing, improved infection prevention efforts and controls, protected rooms to quarantine new residents being admitted, and proper supplies of personal protective equipment.

“Putting energy and focus on these issues will ensure staff feel safe and supported at work, and maintain our current reduced workforce through this difficult phase of the pandemic,” Duncan added.

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