Driven by problems exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, election battle lines have been drawn over the future of long-term care, how the places that house the elderly will look in the coming years, and who will own them.
With the NDP and Liberals promising wholesale reform to more and smaller, home-like facilities and Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives improving care levels and expanding the existing system to reduce waiting lists, voters in Ontario’s June 2 election are facing clear choices.
New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath wasted no time Tuesday taking shots at the Liberal plan first reported by the Star, which, like hers, includes more home care to keep seniors in their own homes longer and spending billions to buy out for-profit operators, many of which had higher COVID death rates.
“The biggest difference is they had 15 years to do it, and they didn’t,” she said of Liberal governments under premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne from 2003 to 2018. “These are not things they believe, otherwise they would have already done them.”
Sources within the Ford government defended its plan, saying for-profit homes were mostly older with more multi-bed rooms where COVID spread faster between residents — and that previous governments fell short in funding upgrades, a situation that is being fixed.
The same points were made by former deputy health minister and retired hospital chief executive Dr. Bob Bell in the Star last year, when he warned it would be a waste of money and a “public policy disaster” to spend billions buying back for-profit homes when the cash would be better spent modernizing them.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, who served as a cabinet minister under Wynne, attributed the Liberal change of heart on long-term care to his “new leadership” and compared the predominance of hospital-style long-term care homes to “warehousing” the elderly.
That language quickly upset some nursing home operators.
The Ontario Long Term Care Association condemned Del Duca’s remarks that called traditional nursing homes “one of the greatest mistakes” of the last century on par with burning coal as fuel and Canada’s poor treatment of Indigenous Peoples.
“This, unfortunately, crosses a line,” the association said in a memo sent Tuesday to its members that include for-profit, not-for-profit and municipal operators of hundreds of the 626 nursing homes across the province.
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“Long-term care provides essential care to seniors when staying at home is simply not possible any longer for them and their families. Long-term care is a haven for families when care needs become too complex and too great,” said the note from association board chair Brent Gingerich and chief executive Donna Duncan.
“Comments like the ones made today perpetuate the stigma and guilt we have been trying to overcome.”
Del Duca stood firm at a Tuesday afternoon news conference where he announced he would raise wages for personal support workers, who provide the bulk of hands-on care to nursing home residents, to a minimum of $25 an hour.
“I will not be deterred,” he told reporters, dismissing the concerns as coming from “vested interests” in the long-term care industry. “It has become so clear during this pandemic, profit and in particular eldercare are completely incompatible.”
Government sources — who zeroed in on Del Duca’s $10-billion plan to buy out for-profit nursing homes as their licences expire by 2028, and a similar promise by the NDP — said the moves would not create one new bed to ease waiting lists even as baby boomers swell the population of elderly Ontarians.
Long-Term Care Minister Paul Calandra’s office noted the previous Liberal government built just 611 new nursing home beds in its last seven years.
“Our government is investing nearly $5 billion to hire more than 27,000 long-term care staff, increasing the hours of direct care for each long-term care resident to an average of four hours per day,” spokesperson Vanessa De Matteis added in a statement, referring to the new hours of care standard to be in place by 2025 as more workers come into the sector.
The PC plan is to open 30,000 more nursing home beds by 2028 and with another 60,000 new and upgraded beds in development.
“We are fixing long-term care in Ontario and getting it done,” De Matteis said.
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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