Column: From the Hill -- COVID, long-term care, and the National Health Act
I want to start by congratulating all the candidates in the recent provincial election. As I write this, it seems clear that the successful candidates in the South Okanagan-West Kootenay area were incumbents Dan Ashton and Katrine Conroy and newcomer Roly Russell. But I know from experience how difficult it can be to step out of your comfort zone and into a major election, so kudos to all the candidates who took part. I’d also like to thank Elections BC for organizing a smoothly run and safe election as the COVID pandemic was increasing into its second wave.
While that second wave seems to be driven more by infections among younger people that the first wave was, deaths are still commoner among older people with COVID. And that is especially true in long term care homes, which account for about 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Canada. These deaths and the shocking stories of neglect that accompanied some of the outbreaks have exposed a problem with staffing levels at long term care homes that was an issue long before the pandemic. And it’s a problem that the federal government must deal with quickly to prevent further suffering.
The federal NDP has called for the federal government to immediately draw up national standards for care in long term homes. However, those new standards by themselves won’t fix the problem. All provinces have standards of care, but the sad truth is that not one province is meeting those standards. And the reason why is simple—there is not enough money put into most of these facilities to cover the staffing levels needed to meet the standards.
Many private care homes hire care workers on a part-time basis, so the workers are forced to take jobs at more than one care home. That issue alone caused a lot of the rapid spread between homes in the first wave of the pandemic. Fortunately, BC quickly banned the practice of working in several care homes, but other provinces were slower to do so, precipitating outbreaks in multiple facilities.
Care workers in long term care homes work hard to keep seniors healthy and happy. It’s a difficult job, one that most of us would find very tiring and stressful. But we don’t pay them enough for that hard work. I’ve talked to employees at several local care homes. At one site, some of the workers had been employed there for over twenty years and were making less now than when they started their jobs. No wonder it’s hard for the facilities to attract workers to fill vacant positions.
So the second proposal that the federal NDP has put forward is to include long term care in the National Health Act, so that the federal standards of care are matched with federal funding, allowing workers to be fairly paid with full-time employment at a single facility.
That action would have to be negotiated with the provinces. But the federal government could take immediate steps to help fix one aspect of this issue. We’ve discovered during the pandemic that seniors living in for-profit homes are four times more likely to become infected and die from COVID-19 than in non-profit homes.
One of the companies with the worst pandemic record—a total of 230 deaths—is Revera. It operates long term care homes across Canada and is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Public Sector Pension Investment Board, a federal Crown corporation. Revera has shown that it is unable to protect our seniors and the federal government should ensure that it is run in a manner that puts the health of its residents first.
Maximizing profits should never be more important than providing quality care to Canadian seniors. The NDP will continue to work hard to ensure long term care facilities are healthy homes where seniors can live in dignity.