Ontario will take over five troubled long-term care homes that were stricken by COVID-19 in the wake of a military report alleging abuse and neglect inside several of the facilities.
The Canadian Armed Forces report, released Tuesday, pulled back the curtain on horrifying conditions inside four of the five homes the province took over Wednesday (the province also took over a fifth home that wasn’t included in the report). Although Premier Doug Ford came under fire for his government’s scaling back of inspections, he refused calls to fire Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton.
“I stand behind my minister 100 per cent,” Ford said.
Ford called the military in to assist in long-term care in Ontario in April, and troops were deployed in the province in early May.
The Opposition NDP said Ford’s refusal to fire Fullerton and acknowledge his government’s role in the crisis are troubling. Party Leader Andrea Horwath pointed to the Progressive Conservative government’s decision to cut $34 million from its long-term care budget last year.
Critics have said the government did not act quickly enough to stop long-term care staff from working at multiple facilities and potentially spreading the virus.
“Outrage is not enough,” said Horwath. “We need permanent change in long-term care.”
Last month, CBC News revealed the Ford government largely stopped doing unannounced inspections of long-term-care homes. The province continued investigating specific complaints, but in those cases, the facility knows an inspector is coming and only the specific complaint is investigated.
Issues and complaints had been reported at several of the five homes in the military report.
Fullerton blamed the COVID-19 crisis in long-term care on long-standing systemic issues in the province. She also said facilities had been inspected dozens of times since the government took power, and across Ontario, long-term facilities have been inspected nearly 3,000 times.
“The inspections, if you did them every five minutes it wouldn’t have changed the crises in staffing in our long-term care homes,” she said.
"We are fully prepared to pull licences, to shut down facilities," Premier Doug Ford said. #onpoli
Horwath pointed out that many of the inspections were in response to specific complaints. If there were thousands of investigations, she added, it’s because there were thousands of cries for help.
“The government refuses to take responsibility,” she said.
‘We are fully prepared to pull licences’
Ford vowed to pursue accountability Wednesday, saying he wouldn’t hesitate to take over more homes and transfer patients elsewhere if need be. (The province previously took over two homes, and now controls a total of seven.)
“We are fully prepared to pull licences, to shut down facilities,” Ford said.
He also said the province’s auditor general will investigate, and some cases may be referred to police and result in criminal charges. The chief coroner is also probing a death at one of the homes. The province has also deployed a fleet of long-term care inspectors, Ford said, and an independent commission to review what went wrong that was originally planned for September has been moved up to July (a commission is similar to a public inquiry, but gives the government more control over its findings).
But Ford declined to revoke licences until provincial inspectors could confirm conditions inside the homes had not improved. In response to a question about how Ontarians could possibly trust that the inspection system would work when it had failed to catch issues at the homes during COVID-19, Ford said he understands and promised the work would be “extremely rigorous."
“We need boots on the ground,” he said. “I want eyes and ears in the homes.”
The military report focused on five homes: Orchard Villa in Pickering, Altamont in the Scarborough area of Toronto, Eatonville in the Etobicoke area of Toronto, Hawthorne in Toronto’s North York area, and Holland Christian in Brampton.
The report alleged a long list of abuses that included bed sores that had reached patients’ bones, lax infection-control practices, feces and cockroach infestations and patients being force-fed until they choked. On Tuesday, Ford had said the allegations were “gut-wrenching.”
Of the five homes in the report, the province has now taken over all except Holland Christian, a not-for-profit home that Ford said had managed to get back on track.
Ontario also took over Camilla Care in Mississauga, which wasn’t spotlighted in the military report, but is managed by the same company as Altamont, Sienna Senior Living. All five of the homes taken over Wednesday are privately owned.