The Saturday Debate: Should private long-term care be abolished? Yes.  

The following Op-Ed by OPSEU/SEFPO President Warren (Smokey) Thomas was published today in the Toronto Star.

The Saturday Debate: Should private long-term care be abolished? Yes.

Warren (Smokey) Thomas
Ontario Public Service Employees Union

This pandemic has taught us a lesson of epic proportions: it’s time to end our toxic relationship with private, for-profit long-term care in Ontario. These so-called “care providers” clearly don’t care about residents or front-line workers — only their corporate shareholders.

For big players like Chartwell and Extendicare, it’s all about profits, not people. It’s no wonder some people call long-term care the “wild west” of our health care system.

But the pandemic didn’t create the crisis, it just brought out the worst of it.

For years, front-line workers and their unions have sounded the alarm on poor conditions within long-term care facilities; too few staff to provide adequate care in homes where patients’ needs are getting more complex. A sector with an ever-expanding wait list, congested with corporate-owned operators concerned only by the bottom line.

We already knew that for-profit providers couldn’t be trusted, but pandemic times — with 3,000-plus resident deaths — have proven they have absolutely no business in the caring business.

Take the recent wage top up for personal support workers (PSWs). Last fall, the province said it would top up PSWs’ hourly wage by $3 in an effort to attract and retain front line staff through the second wave of COVID-19. By mid-January, more than 200 homes had not paid it out.

That’s called wage theft and where I come from when you steal, you go to jail. Apparently in Ontario, when you steal wages from your staff to pay off your corporate shareholders during a global health pandemic, that’s just business as usual. It should be criminal. Then again, so is failure to provide the necessities of life. Yet nobody has been charged, let alone seen the inside of a jail cell. Just another example of the corporate elite playing by different rules.

But it raises an important question: if for-profit care providers can’t take care of their workers — even when they’re handed the cash to do so — how can they possibly take care of patients?

The answer is they can’t. They will always put cash before clients.

Just look at St. George Care Community in Toronto. A recent paramedic report highlighted abysmal health and safety precautions at the facility with reports of abuse, neglect and a complete failure to provide the necessities of life. These conditions are heartbreaking and unacceptable, but they are par for the course with for-profits who cut corners to cut costs — even at the ultimate cost of human life.

And when conditions reach crisis level, the province must clean up the mess by handing the management of these homes over to Ontario hospitals. There are too few consequences for for-profit operators who don’t follow the rules and it’s always taxpayers who pick up the tab when they run amok.

Take Roberta Place — the for-profit facility with Ontario’s worst COVID-19 outbreak. They’d been hammered with dozens of compliance orders and written notices of rule violations but it wasn’t enough. Four days after the outbreak was declared, inspectors found multiple infractions, like room sharing between residents who had tested positive and those who had not. It’s no wonder more than 200 people became infected, but it’s a crying shame that 45 people have died. Compliance orders aren’t enough to combat corporate criminal negligence.

There is no doubt that we need to build more capacity. We need more homes and more staff to meet growing demand and if quality care, accountability and transparency are top of mind, we also need to build homes that are publicly funded, operated and open to public oversight and inspection. Every dollar spent should go to care, not to corporate profits.

Yes, it will be expensive — it will require investment. And yes it will be complicated, too. It will take time, but there is no better time to start than now. We need a robust long-term plan because lives depend on it. We must not only demand, but also implement higher standards and a higher quality of life for residents in long-term care.

Let’s invest smart by building more capacity in our public health care system so we can prevent a bigger crisis and even bigger costs down the road. We owe it to those we’ve lost.