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Long-term care overhaul needed before system ‘runs out of runway’

Posted: March 6, 2021

(March 5, 2021)
By: Ellwood Shreve, Stratford Beacon-Herald

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the devastating impact chronic staff shortages in long-term care have had on residents, says the CEO of a provincial umbrella group for Ontario care homes.
Responding to a virtual protest organized by the Ontario Health Coalition Wednesday that gave voice to frustrated Southwestern Ontario family members, Donna Duncan, the CEO of the Ontario Long Term Care Association, said her organization has long been lobbying the provincial government about long-term understaffing.

When her association appeared before the standing committee on pre-budget consultations in 2020, “we flagged that we were in a staffing crisis,” Duncan said THursday.

In parts of the province, including Southwestern Ontario, Duncan said many homes are “desperately reliant” on staffing agencies because “they can’t recruit staff.”

A shortage of nurses and personal support workers in the longterm care sector is also a growing national issue, she added.

In Ontario, a quickly aging population – the number of residents over the age of 80 is expected to double in the next 13 years – makes finding a solution to this staffing problem critical, Duncan said.

“We’re running out of runway because, at the same time, we need to be educating and training new (medical) professionals in longterm care in particular.”

With many long-term care staff also getting older, she said the sector is “losing people to retirement” while the needs of the province’s older population begin “increasing exponentially.”

Duncan said there is currently 78,000 long-term care spaces in Ontario and a wait list of 38,000 people.

Problems in long-term care, however, have been present for years, a ministry spokesperson said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the systemic issues facing long-term care after decades of neglect and underfunding by successive governments,” said Krystle Caputo, a press secretary to Minister of Long-Term Care Dr Merrilee Fullerton, in an email. “Governments of all stripes have talked about solutions but have failed to act.”

Caputo said between 2011 and 2018, only 611 net new beds were added while outdated rooms in dire need of redevelopment – many built to 1972 ward-style standards that significantly contributed to the severity and spread of COVID-19 in care homes – remained untouched.

She said the Ford government has provided personal support worker wage enhancement programming enabling homes to hire over 8,600 front-line workers.

The work to modernize longterm care is underway, she added, with $1.75 billion invested to create modern and safe long-term care spaces, and immediate investments culminating in $1.9 billion annually to meet “our nation-leading” average of four hours of daily direct resident care.

“Our government is fixing a broken system and making long-term care a better place for residents to live and a better place for staff to work,” Caputo said.

Duncan said newer, modern homes are definitely needed to attract and retain staff, but funding models need to change to reflect the reality of today’s long-term care resident profile.

“The staffing model is anchored in a population that would have been in our long-term care homes 20 or 30 years ago, not for the really heavy care needs that our residents have today.”

She said the pandemic highlighted the “complexity of the care needs of our residents,” adding the majority have some sort of dementia and need full care and support.

With many residents having multiple ailments and often being on several medications, the length of stay in some home is fewer than two years, she noted.

Duncan said investments also need to be made in staff to provide training and supports, including mental-health support.

“Our sector has experienced wholesale trauma,” Duncan said of what staff have endured during the pandemic. “How do we help them, because a lot of them are not OK… especially where we’ve had some of the more dire losses in homes across the province.”

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