It’s time for publicly funded health care to include seniors’ care

June 4, 2020

By Hassan Yussuff as published in National Newswatch

The images, the stories, the experiences of our seniors during this pandemic are enough to bring a grown man to tears.

In fact, it has.

Even Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford has, at times, become emotional while talking about the conditions in the province’s long-term care facilities. It’s a dire situation right across the country.

No one is doubting the sincerity of every single politician who is expressing frustration and helplessness at the pandemic’s scourge within these facilities. But we do have to question why it took the global crisis, hundreds of deaths and intervention by the armed forces for the message to finally get through: our system is broken.

It’s a message that unions and advocates have been communicating for decades. Long-term care should never have become the hodgepodge of private-public system it is today. This system has allowed for-profit agencies to take significant control, some of them led by politicians like Mike Harris who handed over 68% of 20,000 new spaces created during his tenure to the private sector. Ironically, Harris is now the Chair of the Board of Directors at Chartwell, a private company that runs many long-term care facilities.

Just over a year ago, the head of SEIU Healthcare joined fellow union members and advocates at Queen’s Park to call for better treatment and pay for workers in these facilities, which receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the government. By the way, the CEOs of these facilities have in the past received more than $9.2 million dollars of public money with nary a peep out of the same Premier who is now upset about the state of things.

The expansive growth of the private long-term care industry has led to a further devaluing of care work and driven down workers’ wages in order to boost corporate and shareholder profits. 

What we are witnessing is no accident. The horrific conditions that frontline care workers now describe occurred in spite of repeated warnings that have persisted for years.

Facilities are led by managers and owners who are looking after the bottom line, not the well-being of some of society’s most vulnerable. This has meant that workers are paid very little, forced to take on multiple shifts at different facilities and paid just under full-time hours so owners avoid paying benefits and therefore failing to adequately care for staff who take care of their clients.

“Private, for-profit services are necessarily more fragmented, more prone to closure and focused on making a profit. The research demonstrates that homes run on a for-profit basis tend to have lower staffing levels, more verified complaints and more transfers to hospitals, as well as higher rates for both ulcers and morbidity,” conclude Pat Armstrong, Hugh Armstrong, Jacqueline Choiniere, Ruth Lowndes and James Struthers in a recent research paper titled Re-imagining Long-term Residential Care in the COVID-19 Crisis.

It’s time to fix what is broken. The only way to do that is to take immediate steps to make private for-profit long-term care facilities part of the public health care system aligned with the principles of the Canada Health Act.

In fact, it is the exclusion from the Act that has allowed for the proliferation of private for-profit care in our country. We have repeatedly called on the federal and provincial governments to stop the funding cuts and to ameliorate the health care system so every Canadian can access vital health care services based on need, not an ability to pay. 

Whether you are worried about a loved one, or whether you or someone you know is one of the invaluable workers caring for Canada’s seniors, this is the solution we need.

Besides, we’re all ageing. Someday, it may be one of us on the other side of the window, looking out at a world that failed us.

Unless we act now.

Hassan Yussuff is the president of the Canadian Labour Congress. Follow him on Twitter @Hassan_Yussuff

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