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Profits before people?; Probe into LTC system must be free from vested interests

Posted: May 26, 2020

(May 25, 2020)

By: Sue-Ann Levy, Winnipeg Sun (Print Edition)

When Ontario Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton announced an independent commission into 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 deeppocketed vested interests.

Fullerton contended that the long-term care 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 longterm care 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 last 10 weeks.

This is despite a May 6 Ministry of Health directive that 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 figures, about 58% of their 626 members are for-profit and about 40% are either not-forprofit or municipal homes.

The industry has deep pockets.

Former Ontario premier Mike Harris chairs the board of Chartwell Retirement Residences, headquartered in Mississauga. Its stock trades on the TSX. So does Extendicare’s 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 last 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 during the 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 last 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, agreed that it could become an “insider process” compromised by lobbyists and special interests.

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

Bowen claimed that forprofit homes – 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 said that inspections of LTC homes have been reduced to phone calls.

“Can you imagine if hospital accreditation happened by phone?” she said, noting there’s “never” been a social service provider or industry, that she knows of, inspected by phone.

“We have an opportunity now … I think COVID has shone this spotlight on this shame,” she said.

“We haven’t had the critical mass before … COVID was what tipped this ineffective, immoral system into crisis.” 

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