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Profit: Long-term care’s long-term problem

Warren (Smokey) Thomas in a blue suit standing at a podiu
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Every week, I watch the death toll climb in long-term care. And every week, I watch in disbelief as our politicians act like all these tragedies are some kind of mystery.

There’s nothing mysterious about it. But there is something very wrong: the willingness of some to put profits before people.

As far as I’m concerned, the deaths of roughly 2,000 people in our long-term care homes is the crime of the century, and that is why I’ve called on the OPP to launch an investigation.

That has raised some eyebrows, but I’ll continue to call for an investigation until I see some action. There were criminal charges after the Walkerton tragedy in which seven died – surely the deaths of 2,000 people are a good enough reason for police to at least investigate.

When investigating a crime, police officers need to establish means, motive, and opportunity. In the midst of a pandemic, the means and opportunity are easy to figure out. And you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce the motive. It’s profit plain and simple.

The Toronto Star and the Ontario Health Coalition have both done excellent work tracking the differences in the death rates in for-profit homes compared to non-profit and municipal homes. And what they’ve found is chilling.

The Star’s research is particularly revealing. Despite the fact that there’s a roughly equal split in the province between for-profit and non-profit long-term care beds, there have been nearly 10 times as many COVID deaths in for-profit homes during the second wave.

The for-profits homes also fared worse during the first wave – nearly 1,400 of the people in their care died, which was more than 70 per cent of all long-term care deaths in the province.

If numbers like that aren’t a smoking gun, I don’t know what is.

Now, the virus obviously doesn’t care who owns a particular home. But it does thrive in environments where rooms aren’t cleaned properly, where residents are crammed together, where there isn’t enough staff to provide a safe environment, and where nobody has the proper PPEs and safety equipment.

And we know from other newspaper reports and research – not to mention from our own members working in long-term care – that those are the conditions you’re far more likely to find in for-profit homes.

Why? It’s simple. The profit motive trumps all and everybody from managers down to the front-line staff are forced to cut corners in order to cut costs in order to maximize profits.

This isn’t a new problem. Privatization has been a long-term problem in long-term care, ever since Mike Harris opened the sector to profiteers. Low and precarious staffing levels.

Overcrowded homes. The strict rationing of basic necessities like bed sheets and diapers.

Front-line members of our union have been raising the alarm bells about these conditions for years. But now that the virus is here, taking deadly advantage, we can no longer ignore the basic problem and the basic solution.

It’s time to take the profit motive out of long-term care.

And it’s time to hold responsible those who’ve caused so much pain and suffering by putting those profits before people.

I understand that the Premier considers himself a businessperson and that he’s got a natural affinity for others in business. I also know there is concern that litigation could bankrupt private operators. So be it. Shielding long-term care owners from lawsuits with Bill 218 is wrongheaded, not to mention unconstitutional. After all, businesspeople like to say they deserve their profits because they’ve taken the risk. They and their shareholders should also have to pay the consequences.

And yes, the government will have to step up and assume control. Perfect! That’s what needs to happen.

So I say let the lawsuits proceed. Let the criminal investigations begin.

And then let’s finally close this disgraceful chapter on privatized long-term care. Let’s start a new book. One of accountability, care and respect. Those who built this province deserve that.

In Solidarity,

Warren (Smokey) Thomas
President, Ontario Public Service Employees Union

@OPSEUSmokey
facebook.com/OPSEUSmokey

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