By Moira Welsh
Investigative Reporter Toronto Star
The Ontario government is making sweeping changes to long-term care homes by eliminating long-held rules that protect vulnerable residents.
Written in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the “temporary” emergency order filed by the Ministry of Long-Term Care is an attempt to deal with the outbreak, which is infecting fragile seniors and staff.
The order also removes training requirements for workers, allows homes to bring in volunteers and eliminates the need for administrators to report most complaints to the ministry.
“It’s going to be a disaster, ” said Jane Meadus, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly.
“We are seeing the high levels of COVID in long-term care, and what are we doing? We are sending the most untrained people to these homes, ” Meadus said.
“First of all, infection control is going to be very scary if people are not properly trained. But these (residents) are people with choking hazards, complex (skin) wound needs and if staff don’t have the proper training, it’s also going to be a problem with the ongoing care.”
The new regulations fall under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act. The “order in council” amends existing legislation and does not require debate in the house. The written order does not say how long the new rules will last.
A ministry statement sent in response to the Star’s questions said, “It will last for 14 days and the ministry still has regulatory oversight over long-term care homes.” The ministry also said, “These are extraordinary times and this serious situation is evolving quickly. That is why our government is rapidly taking these necessary steps to support our frontline long-term care workers and the residents they care for.”
Ministry inspectors will be redeployed to nursing homes, a second statement said. The Ontario Long Term Care Association, which represents mostly for-profit homes, sent an email calling the government’s order “bold action.” It said homes can now “respond quickly to the needs in their community, like hiring resident care aides to fill the gaps created by this pandemic so staff can focus on care and less on arduous documentation.”
On Friday (March 27) night, Candace Rennick a senior executive with the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Ontario joined a conference call with union president Fred Hahn and Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton. CUPE represents 35,000 frontline long-term care workers in Ontario.
Rennick said details of the new regulations left her shaken.
“I know the system is in crisis and (operators are) looking for some type of relief, especially at a time like this but the relief cannot come at the expense of the health and safety of the residents and staff, said Rennick.
“It’s a case of life and death. I’m not trying to be dramatic but it is.”
The emergency order lists more than a dozen amended regulations. The first authorizes homes to take “any reasonably necessary measure … to respond to, prevent and alleviate the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in a long-term care home.”
Meadus said that gives homes a lot of leeway in decision-making. Under the staffing section, the order says operators can fill any staff position with the person who, “in their reasonable opinion, ” has the adequate skills, training and knowledge to perform the duties required of that position. As well, operators no longer have to meet the previous training and orientation requirements “provided they ensure staff and volunteers take measures to ensure resident care and safety.”
Most frontline staff are personal support workers who are not regulated by a college but must graduate from a certified school. Rennick said she is now questioning whether homes will be hiring very low-paid workers or, based on the wording of the regulation, using volunteers.
She said CUPE wants specific details from the ministry about staff. Will they be hired as personal support workers? Will they be paid minimum wage? Or will they be brought in as volunteers? “We have absolutely no answers to some of these questions which is even more alarming, ” Rennick said.
“We were hoping to see measures from the ministry that would make it safer for people entering and working in long-term facilities, ” she said. “It appears that these measures have basically opened the doors and said ‘just have at it, do whatever you can to get bodies to help people.’ And that is going to put more people at risk.”