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LEVY: Long-term care home probe must truly be independent

Posted: May 25, 2020

(May 24, 2020)

By: Sue-Ann Levy, Toronto Sun

When provincial long-term care minister Merrilee Fullerton announced an independent commission into long-term care homes a week ago, the question on the minds of many advocates and families who’ve lost loved ones has been whether it will truly be free of influence by deep-pocketed vested interests.

Fullerton has contended the long-term care (LTC) system is “broken.”

But as I’ve learned, the system was terribly broken long before the pandemic.

It is unconscionable that more than 1,500 seniors in LTC homes had to die from COVID-19 to make everyone pay attention.

It has become clear to me during this crisis that LTC homes wield incredible power. Officials know full well that people are living longer, that families often turn to homes when they are desperate and can no longer keep their loved ones in the community and that the demand exceeds supply.

We don’t have to look any further than the absolute and bordering on dispassionate refusal by LTC homes to permit essential caregivers into facilities especially given that their loved ones — most of them with high needs — have declined in isolation over the past 10 weeks.

This is despite a May 6 Ministry of Health directive which listed family “caregivers” as essential, presumably to enable them to be permitted into LTC homes.

To date, despite much media attention and many pleas from families, Fullerton has remained silent on this issue — leaving one to wonder whether the tail wags the dog.

The LTC home lobby is tremendously powerful and there is incredible money tied up in for-profit homes. According to the Long-Term Care Association’s own figures, about 58% of their 626 members are for-profit and about 40% either not-for-profit or municipal homes.

The industry has deep pockets.

Former premier Mike Harris is chair of the board of Chartwell Retirement Residences, headquartered in Mississauga. Its stock trades on the TSX. So does Extendicare stock.

One has to look no further than the number of Conservative insiders who’ve already signed up to lobby the province on behalf of the big players to know how important the profit motive really is to the industry.

According to a statement from the NDP caucus earlier this week, Conservative strategist Leslie Noble, campaign manager for Harris in 1995 and 1999, signed up at the end of March to lobby for Chartwell.

Melissa Lantsman, spokesman for Ford in 2018 campaign, signed up to lobby on behalf of Extendicare at the end of April.

Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, fears there’s been no commitment from the province that no one with a vested interest will be appointed to the commission.

“No one from the industry should be sitting as a commissioner … this needs to be an impartial clear-eyed view of what has happened in long-term care and what needs to change,” she said this week.

She said the homes are now “desperately understaffed” but they still won’t let family caregivers in to help.

“One of the reasons is that it’s easier to keep them out because they don’t have anyone complaining, they don’t have anyone advocating,” she said. “The interests of operators are often different from those of families.”

No kidding.

Paddy Bowen, a spokesman for the newly created Seniors For Social Action (Ontario) with decades of experience in long-term care, agrees that it could become an “insider process” compromised by lobbyists and special interests.

She feels the existence of the dominant full-profit element in long-term care is appalling to her — especially places that “siphon off” money to shareholders that should be going to care.

Bowen claims the for-profit homes — in order to deliver results to shareholders — have not increased their staffing ratios in keeping with the changing (higher) needs of people who come into their homes.

She also notes that inspections of LTC homes have now been reduced to phone calls.

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