COVID-19 has ravaged long-term care homes here in Ontario and across Canada, and a lot of people have been wondering why. A report from the Canadian Forces back in May started pointing some fingers, but now the Provincial government is going to start a more formal process. Ontario is finally launching its independent long-term care COVID-19 commission, but some people think we should already know the answer.
“As Premier, I made a commitment to our long-term care residents and their families that there would be accountability and justice in the broken system we inherited,” said Doug Ford at today’s announcement. “Today, we are delivering on that promise by moving forward with a transparent, independent review of our long-term care system. We will do whatever it takes to ensure every senior in the province has a safe and comfortable place to call home.”
The commission will be led by Associate Chief Justice Frank N. Marrocco, who has been on the Superior Court of Justice since 2005. Marrocco has previously taken part in the 2000 inquiry into the tainted water scandal in Walkerton, and led a 2018 inquiry into land deals in Collingwood. The former CEO of Ottawa Hospital Dr. Jack Kitts, and Angela Coke, a former senior executive of the Ontario Public Service, have also been appointed to the commission.
According to the Government of Ontario media release, the commission will have the power to investigate, compel people to produce evidence, summon witnesses, and hold public meetings. The government expects the delivery of a full report by April 2021.
“The people of Ontario deserve a timely, transparent and non-partisan investigation,” said Minister of Long-Term Care Dr. Merrilee Fullerton in a statement. “That is why our government is launching this independent commission to help us identify ways to prevent the future spread of disease in Ontario’s long-term care homes.”
Some quarters welcomed the news of a review of long-term care homes in Ontario.
“We are encouraged that it will look at a broad range of longstanding and systemic challenges including staffing, infrastructure and labour relations,” read a statement from the Ontario Long Term Care Association. It is vitally important to ensure systemic issues are addressed to ensure that long-term care is sustainable and able to provide the high quality care that Ontario’s seniors need and deserve.”
Others though are critical of the announcement, and all the things that the commission will not be able to do.
“By preventing the commission from reaching any conclusions about civil or criminal liability, he is denying justice to the nearly 2,000 elders who died and their loved ones,” said Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner in a statement. “There should be no immunity for the long-term care sector and it is totally at odds with the Premier’s promise that he would ‘get to the bottom of this.’”
“Over 1,840 people have died in long-term care during this pandemic. Those are our parents, our grandparents and the builders of this province,” said NDP critic for the Attorney General Gurratan Singh in a statement. “The first thing the Ford government must do is immediately fix the things we already know are wrong to give those in care better quality of life, and better protection.”
Singh agreed with Schreiner that the scope of the review is too narrow, and that the findings are non-binding. He also expressed concern about closed door meetings, key documents being declared confidential, and that their needs to be standing for the families members of people who have died in care. Aside from that, Singh pointed out that the needs of long-term care are already well understood.
“We need to hire thousands of PSWs, make their jobs full time, and pay them better,” Singh said. “We need to have a legislated minimum standard staffing level of four hours of hands on care per day per resident. We need more staff training, and the end of the use of temp agencies to staff care homes.”
A lot of these suggestions were part of the previous inquiry into long-term care following the arrest and conviction of Elizabeth Wettlaufer, a long-term care nurse who was charged with the killing of eight people in her care in two different homes. There were a total of 91 recommendations to come out of that commission including the need to make sure all long-term care homes are appropriately staffed with the right numbers and the right training.
“Ontario is the most poorly staffed province in long-term care, and the Commissioner of the Wettlaufer Inquiry gave Ford until this Friday to table a staffing plan,” Schreiner noted. “It does not bode well for the upcoming long-term care inquiry if the Premier is already failing to listen to the recommendations from the last one.”
The Canadian Forces report released earlier this year detailed serious deficiencies in five long-term care homes in Ontario where they rendered assistance. They described a “general culture of fear” where patients were left malnourished and unkempt, where medication and supplies were out-of-date and inaccessible, and staff shortages and insect infestations were not uncommon.
“Our elders will not be safe from COVID-19 or any future emergency if they continue to be neglected due to skeleton staffing ratios and inadequate standards of care,” Schreiner added.