OTTAWA — Advocates and experts in long-term health care say now is the time for Ottawa to intervene when it comes to the inhumane treatment of seniors in nursing homes across the country.
When the number of deaths related to COVID-19 started mounting in April, federal officials promised to work with provinces to better protect seniors in the future.
Then came damning military reports, outlining cases of abuse and acts of negligence in the Ontario and Quebec long-term care facilities where troops had been deployed to help during the pandemic.
The military found insect infestations, aggressive feeding of residents that caused choking, bleeding infections, and residents crying for help for hours.
Federal and provincial politicians expressed disgust and dismay at what the military uncovered and promised action, but researchers, experts and advocates say they’ve been raising the same concerns for years to no avail.
While disappointed it took military interference to bring the issue to the foreground, they say this should finally spur some kind of federal action to deal with the problem.
“We have to do this together as a country,” Carole Estabrooks, who has collected data on long-term care for 15 years as the head of the Translating Research in Elder Care program at the University of Alberta.
“We have to stop the bickering and the jurisdictional issues and act together so that we have some national standards, some national expectations, some resources that are attached to that.”
Unlike the bulk of Canada’s universal health-care system, the federal government has no jurisdiction over long-term care in Canada.
If Canadians believe their acute-care system should exist under federal legislation that guarantees certain principles, it’s not unreasonable to expect that continuing care should exist under the same national framework, Estabrooks said, adding that it should include home care, as well as nursing homes and retirement residences.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has advocated for the long-term care system to be brought under the Canada Health Act, the legislative framework underpinning universal health care.
Singh has blamed many of the problems in these centres on the for-profit model under which many seniors’ homes in Canada operate.
“We want the federal government to show leadership on this, and not hide behind jurisdiction,” Singh said.
In an NDP-hosted virtual town hall Tuesday evening, former federal health minister Jane Philpott said she believes there’s a role for the federal government to play.
“We need to stop using jurisdiction as an excuse to not have federal leadership,” said Philpott, a former Liberal and then Independent MP who is set to take on a new role as dean of the health sciences faculty at Queen’s University. She declined an interview request.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said respecting provincial jurisdiction will be an important part of responding to the issues with long-term care.
“The Constitution of Canada is not an excuse. It lays out the divisions of powers and responsibilities and we respect the province’s jurisdiction over long-term care facilities,” he said Wednesday during an exchange with Singh during the special committee on COVID-19 in the House of Commons.
When asked about setting national standards for long-term care, the prime minister said he didn’t want to “short circuit” those discussions by making “aggressive proposals.”
Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics for Sinai Health System in Toronto, said bringing long-term care into the federal fold won’t be enough to fix the problem.
The Trudeau government waded into the area of seniors care in 2017 when Philpott was health minister, having agreed to give the provinces some $6 billion over 10 years for home and community-based care. That money came with some common standards and benchmarks to track the progress of those funds.
That made for some difficult conversations with provinces who didn’t want the federal government stepping on their turf, said Sinha, who had knowledge of the talks.
Sinha said some of the criteria for measuring the success of the funding have still not been developed.
“In the end, we spent $6 billion with very little accountability and we’re no further ahead,” he said.
During Trudeau’s daily briefing with the media, he said he’d be speaking with premiers about the situation in long-term care during his weekly call with them Thursday.
“We’re working with the provinces right now to make sure they serve our seniors in the right way,” he said.
For now, the government is focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in long-term care, he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2020.
— With files from Teresa Wright in Ottawa
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press