OTTAWA—Canada needs to go beyond voluntary guidelines and consider national standards for long term care facilities as the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the need for “dramatic reform,” the federal health minister said Monday.
Stating the Liberal government is “very open” to reviewing how seniors and vulnerable individuals are cared for in this country, Health Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters that Ottawa needs to collaborate with the provinces and territories to “move from a place of guidelines to a place of standards” for long-term care.
“I don’t think there is a minister amongst us that would disagree that we need to do a better job and that the federal government can play some leadership role in this,” Hajdu told reporters on Parliament Hill Monday.
“We are having those conversations as we speak, not only in terms of how we renew that system in the future, but also how we better support long-term care, regardless of how that care is delivered or under what model.”
Hajdu was responding to a question about for-profit nursing homes. An analysis by the Star has shown that residents of for-profit care homes in Ontario are about twice as likely to catch COVID-19 and die than those who live in non-profit facilities.
The pandemic has taken an especially harsh toll on people in long-term care, with outbreaks at facilities across the country that have seen military personnel deployed to fill staffing shortages in Ontario and Quebec. More than 80 per cent of Canadians killed by COVID-19 as of May 6 lived in long term care facilities, according to the National Institute on Aging at Ryerson University.
A recent study by the International Long-Term Care Policy Network also concluded Canada ranked first among 14 countries for the highest proportion of long term care deaths from COVID-19.
New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh calls the situation “heartbreaking” and said his party will push the Liberal minority government to end the for-profit care model that he blamed for having “the worst conditions” during the pandemic.
In an interview with the Star on Monday, he echoed concerns from health unions and advocacy groups that staff are underpaid and sometimes must work at more than one facility to make a living — a practice that was temporarily banned in Ontario last month.
While long-term care falls under provincial jurisdiction, Singh said the federal government needs a national “care guarantee” that includes minimum standards for long term care facilities. These could serve as criteria for federal funding under the Canada Health Act that governs how provincial health systems need to conform to national standards to get money from Ottawa.
He said standards could include requirements for better pay for employees, regulations around the number of staff per resident and how often residents receive one-on-one care.
“For-profit long term care homes have no place in Canada,” Singh said, suggesting Ottawa could stop renewing licences for private homes or attach conditions to federal funding for long-term care to ensure it is public and universal.
“The existing system is wholly inadequate to respond to the needs of seniors and we’ve got to do something about it.”
The federal Green Party has also called for greater federal oversight in long-term care, along with national standards for public and private facilities.
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On April 13, the Public Health Agency of Canada released recommendations for long term care homes during the pandemic. These included restricting visitors, requiring staff to wear protective masks, provide training on infection-control measures, and preventing employees from working at more than one location “if possible.”
Canada’s aging population will increase the need for long-term care in the coming years. A 2017 report from the Conference Board of Canada predicted another 199,000 long-term care beds could be needed by 2035 — almost double the 255,000 beds in Canada at the time — at a cost of roughly $64 billion.