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Health coalition to fight for public nursing homes, Sudbury meeting told

Posted: March 27, 2022

(March 25, 2022)

By: Star Staff, Sudbury Star

Melissa Wood, of UNIFOR, discusses issues of a report released by the Ontario Health Coalition in Sudbury, Ont. on Monday January 21, 2019. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network

Melissa Wood, of UNIFOR, discusses issues of a report released by the Ontario Health Coalition in Sudbury, Ont. on Monday January 21, 2019. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network

With Queen’s Park doling out more beds to private nursing homes and a provincial election looming, the local chapter of the Ontario Health Coalition is gearing up for a big fight to preserve and enhance care for the elderly.

“We need to improve and protect public health care and not go into another year with staffing crises,” said Melissa Wood, co-chair of the Sudbury Health Coalition, at an emergency summit held via Zoom on Wednesday evening. “The (Doug) Ford government is midway in allocating 18,000 long-term care beds to for-profit companies in 30-year contracts unless we stop them.”

Speaker after speaker noted how the pandemic exposed huge gaps and disparities in the long-term care system, with privately run homes being far more likely to skimp on protective gear and leave residents in the lurch.

“We represent workers in not-for-profit, municipal and for-profit homes,” said Katha Fortier, an official with Unifor and nurse by profession. “And everybody simply knows that when you work for a for-profit operator, almost 99 times out of 100, they put profit first.”

The public system, meanwhile, “has been starved for decades,” she said, and the long-term sector as a whole is fraught with staffing shortages and rapid turnover.

“Health-care workers are traumatized,” she said. “They have worked through what is essentially a humanitarian crisis.”

Few private operations are offering full-time work “and when we go to the bargaining table, these employers are still offering wage increases that are well below inflation,” said Fortier. “For-profit care in long-term care is nothing but an abject failure and we have to make sure that we are voting on this, on stopping privatization.”

Ultimately it is the residents who suffer, noted Natalie Mehra, head of the Ontario Health Coalition.

She used the example of woman named Margaret who had been a foster parent to many in her younger years but “suffered alone and without care” at a short-staffed nursing home.

“Her life was valuable; she was an extraordinary human being,” she said. “She was loved by her family and her community and by all the children she cared for, and as a society we should have seen her life as precious. Instead Margaret died in August in a hospital after months of decline and inadequate care in her long-term care home.”

While many seniors have succumbed to COVID-19 over the past couple of years, that wasn’t actually what caused Margaret’s death.

“She was isolated in her long-term care home and didn’t receive the foot care for which her family had paid extra, so she developed painful sores and infected blisters,” said Mehra. “She didn’t receive her pain medication and died ultimately of kidney failure and a urinary tract infection that was left untreated. Margaret didn’t die of COVID; she died from neglect.”

COVID, however, has certainly has taken its toll, as well.

Mehra said more than 4,500 residents of long-term care homes have now died from the virus, along with 13 staff members, in two years alone.

“But that doesn’t capture all of it,” she said. “Among residents, more than 25,000 have been infected.”

That’s a third of the approximately 75,000 people who currently reside in Ontario long-term care facilities. On top of that, at least 12,000 staff have contracted COVID.

“This is not normal,” said Mehra. “It didn’t happen everywhere in the world. In fact, we have the worst rates of infection and death in our long-term care homes of anywhere in the developed world.”

COVID-related mortalities have been far higher among the private facilities, the OHC president pointed out.

“What we saw in Ontario’s long-term care homes was the for-profit homes had five times the death rate of the publicly owned homes,” she said. “It’s a systemic issue.”

Mehra said there must be more accountability for homes that fail to protect residents and a bigger investment in health care overall.

“Ontario now has the fewest hospital beds per person of any province in Canada,” she said. “We actually have the fewest beds left per person of any peer nation on earth. The only two OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ) countries who have fewer hospital beds left than we do are Mexico and Chile.”

Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, said Queen’s Park is doing more to help businesses with hydro costs than it is for its most vulnerable and fragile people.

“Ontario is going to be spending an additional $231 million next year on long-term care, and $5 billion over four years,” he said. “But as an article in the Globe pointed out, we are going going to be spending $24 billion over four years in subsidizing hydro rates, much of which is going to go to business.”

That discrepancy “puts into context our priorities as a society,” said Hurley. “You would think we would be so ashamed, coming off our failure to defend our residents of long-term care, that improving conditions for them would be a huge priority for us.”

Hurley said the average mortality rate for private long-term care homes in the pandemic’s first wave was 5.2 per cent, compared to 2.8 per cent for not-for-profits and 1.4 per cent for municipally run homes.

The latter have the highest staffing levels, he noted, followed by the not-for-profits.

“It’s been well documented for years that there’s a problem with the quality of care, particularly in for-profit care,” he said. “It is simply natural for profit-taking to intensify, but the higher rates of return for shareholders can be counted in the bodies and suffering of the people who are in the clutches of these operators.”

With a provincial election just a couple of months away, Hurley said the time is now to protest and reverse the move towards more privatization.

“We are so gifted because in Ontario, unlike so many other provinces, we have such a vibrant health coalition and a great network,” he said. “When we unite all of the allies, we are incredibly powerful.”

In the past, public pressure has thwarted the privatization of ambulance services, he noted, as well as the privatization of cancer care.

“We have a history of activism and a wonderful argument here, in terms of why health care should be delivered on a not-for-profit basis,” he said. “We just need to get energized.”

As part of its campaign to pressure politicians and motivate voters, the coalition will be distributing lawn signs in Sudbury in coming weeks, along with signs to put in windows and stickers for cars, all emphasizing the need to keep health care public.

“No more seniors suffering,” reads one of the messages. “Care can’t wait.”

The group also discussed buying space on a billboard or several billboards in the Sudbury area to further promote its message.

An event is also in the works for Tom Davies Square on May 1, and the Canadian Union of Public Employees will be holding a rally in early May.

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