The most recent editions of News from the Park have focused on Ontario’s catastrophic hospital wait times, staffing and funding issues for hospitals and increasing funding for our ailing healthcare system. Similarly, the columns discussed the need to promote training and education and increase funding to support senior in-home care programs better. Knowing that these two issues rank among the higher priorities for Northerners, they seemed like obvious choices to begin the New Year.
Another issue of concern to the people of Algoma-Manitoulin is the Ford government’s policies and practices regarding the care and protection of seniors who live in long-term care facilities.
It seems like it was just yesterday that Ontarians were horrified by daily reports of deaths in long-term care homes across the province. According to CBC News, during the COVID-19 pandemic, between March 2020 and April 2022, 4,335 residents and 13 staff members in Ontario’s long-term care facilities died. A CBC article published September 7, 2023, reported, “For a seven-week period from mid-March into May, inspections stopped in the province, the [Ombudsman’s] report states — with many senior government officials totally unaware that on-site investigations were not happening. There were 720 COVID-related deaths in long-term care during this period alone.” It is also important to note that private for-profit facilities had a significantly higher percentage of said deaths.
The Ombudsman’s report stated that there were no government inspections of long-term care facilities for at least seven weeks in the spring of 2020 and that no inspection reports were filed for two months. This means there was no oversite of hundreds of long-term care facilities across the province. In the words of the Ombudsman, the government’s negligence was “unreasonable, unjust and wrong.”
There can be no argument that part of any government’s job is to protect the people, especially those who are most vulnerable or helpless. Citizens need to have confidence that someone with knowledge, experience and authority is looking out for them and their families.
While the above statistics are beyond shocking to most Ontarians, the news worsens. According to Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé’s report released this fall, government officials were in a position to prevent or at least reduce the number of deaths in this catastrophe.
The government simply sat on its hands and watched this play out before their eyes – not for days but weeks! This is nothing short of callous, shameful negligence by the Ontario government.
A few days ago, the Ford government announced it is launching a newly formed team of long-term care investigators. According to the news release, the team will have the power to investigate allegations of neglect or abuse reported in any LTC home in Ontario. Further, it could investigate homes repeatedly cited for non-compliance with regulations, ministry orders, or falsifying information in mandatory reports.
On January 16, 2024, ElliotLakeToday.com quoted Stan Cho, Minister of Long-Term Care, saying that Ontario has “the toughest inspection and enforcement program in Canada.” I can’t help but think, if the standards and enforcement are so rigorous, how did so many vulnerable Ontarians die? The statement and reality don’t seem to jive.
So, according to Minister Cho, the Province has recognized problems and believes they have developed a plan to improve matters. That’s a good thing. Right?
Well, forgive me if I feel somewhat suspicious of their plans. I say this because the Ford government’s performance record does nothing to bolster my confidence.
Minister Cho’s news release on his own website states, “The work of the Investigations Unit will complement Ontario’s existing robust inspections program.” What greatly concerns me is that if the Ministry already had such a “robust inspection program,” how effective is it if 720 people died under those regulations?
It seems that the problem is twofold. First, the Ministry stopped conducting unannounced inspections of LTC homes to save money. Management had prior knowledge of when to expect a visit from an inspector. Well, of course, everything was just fine when the inspection occurred.
Then, according to the above CBC article, when the pandemic struck, inspections were not conducted for two whole months. However, when the prescheduled inspections resumed, “inspectors often gave homes reduced penalties for non-compliance, or let them have months to remedy issues that were causing residents’ serious harm.”
Ombudsman Dubé’s report noted, “We saw many examples where inspectors used their considerable discretion to lower the default enforcement action that would otherwise apply, even in very serious situations and with little to no explanation.” Even though ministry policy was to revoke the license of offending homes, and despite the fact that residents were literally dying, the homes were let off with a slap on the wrist.
So, the Ministry provided the means and the tools for the inspectors to ensure the safety and well-being of residents of LTC homes in the province. But the Ministry knowingly ordered leniency for the offending homes, all of which resulted in avoidable anxiety, suffering, sorrow and death.
And now, Premier Ford and Minister Cho expect their confident smiles and his government’s fanfare of news releases touting improvements will instill renewed confidence in the minds of our seniors and their families.
As I said above, it is still not too late to alter course and make things better for everyone.
Ontario is one of the few remaining places that continues to build big long-term care facilities, which can feel more like hospitals or institutions and less like home. Ontario would be better off to focus on building and funding small community based LTC facilities that house perhaps ten residents. Other nations are far ahead of us as they no longer approve or fund of private for-profit institutional hospital-like facilities.
Home-like settings reduce the risk of infection, and studies show that home-like settings help keep seniors safe and healthy because smaller spaces are better for people living with dementia who rely on familiar surroundings. Home-like settings also tend to have better working conditions for staff, which translates to better care for residents.
As well, rather than having a Ministry that can be influenced by political agendas, appoint a Seniors’ Advocate to act as an independent officer of the Legislature to monitor, inspect and enforce LTC home regulations.
Steps must be taken to reel in privately operated nursing companies who charge exorbitant rates to nursing homes and hospitals. The government must do much better at recruiting and retaining full-time. Establish wage rates that reflect the respect and importance of the work staff at public, non-profit facilities.
Is it just me, or do other Ontarians find Doug Ford’s priorities out of whack? It is most perplexing that our Premier has prioritized access to beer over health care and senior care. Since he was first elected in 2018 with his Buck-a Beer campaign, he has been a dog-with-a-bone on reducing beer prices and making it more convenient to purchase beer by putting it in corner stores and gas stations. It seems clear that Premier Ford puts a lower priority on shortening emergency department, and surgical wait times, as well as moving seniors out of hallway medicine limbo, waiting for a space in a long-term care facility. This is just plain wrong.
Ontarians have good reason to reduce their confidence and trust in the Ford government’s leadership and governing. To be blunt, the government has a long row to hoe to restore public confidence.
As always, please feel free to contact my office about these issues or any other provincial matters. You can reach my constituency office by email at email@example.com or by phone Toll-free at 1-800-831-1899.
Michael Mantha MPP/député