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Thomas: Enough politics, it’s time for ethics in long-term care

OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas with a Toronto Sun logo.

The following Op Ed by OPSEU/SEFPO President Warren (Smokey) Thomas was published in the Toronto Sun on Friday, May 7, 2021.

Thomas: Enough politics, it’s time for ethics in long-term care

While capping rates of return would be a short-term solution, it’s sure to set the wheels of change in motion

Profit vs. care — it’s the never-ending tug-of-war in our long-term care sector.

In Ontario, where two-thirds of all homes are private, for-profit facilities, it’s no great surprise that the almighty dollar rules. And look how that’s turned out. While COVID-19 has been an absolute horror show, it’s one that was predicted, and could have been prevented.

Left in the hands of politicians, Ontario’s long-term care sector has become a complete mess — a dangerous mess that has resulted in mass casualties and suffering.

That’s why it’s time to take the profit — and the politics — out of care. And it’s time to bring in ethics.

That’s why OPSEU/SEFPO is calling for the establishment of a fully independent Commissioner for Seniors Issues and Long-Term Care, a position appointed by the legislature — like Ontario’s auditor general — that is arm’s-length and takes politics out of the picture.

Instead of reporting to a ministry, the commissioner would report directly to the legislature — to the people of Ontario. Appointed to a five-year term, the commissioner would be responsible for reviewing issues of particular concern to seniors, like home care, long-term care, affordable housing and seniors’ mental health, just to name a few.

In its scathing report, the Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission recently issued 85 key recommendations to overhaul Ontario’s long-term care system. Many of these recommendations mirror the changes our union has been demanding for years — to hire more staff, conduct more rigorous inspections and enforcement, fund infrastructure and job training, legislate minimum care standards, and improve access to community and home care.

At the heart of it, we need a new model that removes the profit incentive from resident care. Fully public long-term care must be our long-term goal.

Because profit and care will never be compatible.

I realize that system-wide change doesn’t happen overnight. Luckily, it won’t take much to bring an ethical investing lens to long-term care.

The provincial government can legislate a cap on the rate of return, to ensure that for-profit companies can’t make more than a marginal profit — say 5%. Anything above would have to be reinvested directly into resident care, rather than provide exorbitant executive bonuses like the ones Extendicare and Sienna Senior Living paid out to their top brass in 2020.

It’s shocking that in the same year that COVID swept through private, for-profit facilities, killing thousands of people, top corporate executives managed to walk off with millions in bonuses, even in cases where their company’s profits fell.

It doesn’t take a lot of skill to smell the corporate corruption that has rotted Ontario’s long-term care system.

While capping rates of return would be a short-term solution, it’s sure to set the wheels of change in motion. We need that change, and we need it now. Our loved ones’ lives depend on it.

Tug-of-war is a game, but people’s lives aren’t. Whether it’s long-term care, home care or any other type of care, it’s time to stop playing with profits and politics and bring ethics into the equation.

— Warren (Smokey) Thomas is President of OPSEU/SEFPO