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Matthews: We cannot wait for an inquiry when it comes to our long-term care homes

Posted: May 29, 2020

(May 28, 2020)

By: Catherine Matthews, Ottawa Citizen

Our organization, the Ottawa Health Coalition, has been warning successive Ontario governments of the worsening ongoing crisis in long-term care homes for many years.

It’s incredible the Canadian Armed Forces had to be called in to protect some of our most vulnerable elderly against the ravages caused by decades of funding cuts, inadequate regulations, privatization and corporate profit-taking. What they found brought responses of horror and revulsion from Premier Doug Ford, who called the situation gut-wrenching and horrific.

This cruel tragedy could have been avoided. Where was the minister of long-term care prior to and during the COVID-19 outbreak? In Ottawa, we have watched as the number of deaths has risen to exceed the provincial average by four per cent. The overwhelming majority of these deaths have been in corporate for-profit homes, according to the Toronto Star.

The conditions that have been exposed are chronic and systemic and must be urgently addressed. We cannot wait for an inquiry.

The loss of lives of LTC residents is unprecedented, and the deaths of staff throughout the province is on a scale of some of Canada’s worst workplace health and safety tragedies. For this commission of inquiry to be effective, it must have the power to investigate corporate and management criminal negligence.

But the commission of inquiry, scheduled to begin in September, must not delay urgently needed improvements. Two critical and necessary changes must be immediately implemented:

  1. Permanent employment at a single LTC home (full or part-time) for personal support workers that ensures a living wage, and 14 days annual sick leave.
  2. Amend the Long-Term Care Homes Act to require a standard of care of not less than four hours per resident per day of hands-on care to protect the health and safety of residents and staff. Voluntary family caregivers, whose hands-on support has been an essential component of care in LTC must be allowed to return to help their loved ones.

In the longer term, we want to see the federal government bring LTC under the umbrella of Canada’s universal public health-care system either through the Canada Health Act or separate legislation. There is growing support to include home care as part of a broader envelope of publicly funded health services for seniors that would be managed according to national standards, which include Public Administration, Accessibility, Comprehensiveness, Universality and Portability, the five principles of the Canada Health Act.

We will be carefully watching how Ontario proceeds with the establishment of the commission of inquiry. The success of this process will depend on making sure that front-line health-care workers with firsthand experience have representation with a full voice. Family Councils must also be front and centre.

We have growing concerns about the close political ties between the board of directors of the Ontario Long Term Care Association and its lobbyists with the provincial government. It has recently been revealed that retirement residence operators Chartwell (whose chair of the board is former Ontario premier Mike Harris), Extendicare and Revera have all hired politically connected lobbyists, a move that earned condemnation from the provincial NDP.

These for-profit corporations make policy and management decisions that produce profits for shareholders and high salaries for executives at the expense of adequate care of seniors entrusted to their care. Let us remember that these unaccountable for-profit corporations receive per resident subsidies from the taxpayers of Ontario. There is no room for profit-taking in long-term care.

As Canadians, we take pride in our public health care system even as it is being weakened by continuing government cuts to services. Change will only happen when we, the public, demand it. It is time for a new model of care for our elderly instead of the current model that warehouses our most vulnerable citizens without dignity and compassion.

Catherine Matthews is the treasurer at the Ottawa Health Coalition, which advocates for progressive changes that protect and expand our public health-care system.

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