Slow down and get retirement homes law right

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Mon May 17 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

The legislative committee reviewing the Ontario government’s Retirement Homes Act is moving at top speed. Last week, it completed its public hearings in a single day. This week, it expects to wrap up its clause-by-clause review.

Gerry Phillips, the minister responsible for seniors, would like to see the bill become law before the House rises for the summer next month.

Everybody seems to agree with his pace. The opposition parties, the retirement home industry and the public all want the bill passed as soon as possible.

There is only one dissenting voice: that of seniors.

They want a serious debate about the substance of the bill.

“We support the idea of regulation, but this is not the way to do it,” said Gerda Kaegi of Canadian Pensioners Concerned. The former Ryerson professor wanted to speak to the committee, but couldn’t accommodate the 10-minute time slot she was assigned.

Only a handful of concerned groups — the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, the Ontario Coalition of Senior Citizens’ Organizations, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario and the Canadian Union of Public Employees — got a spot on the roster.

The Advocacy Centre for the Elderly (ACE), a legal aid clinic specializing in seniors’ issues, made the strongest presentation. “While we support the spirit of the proposed legislation, we cannot support Bill 21 unless significant changes are made,” executive director Judith Wahl told the committee. “We submit that retirement home regulation is of such critical importance in the lives of Ontarians that it should be carried out by way of a government-administered scheme.”

That is not what Phillips is proposing. His legislation would create an arm’s-length regulatory authority to license and inspect retirement homes, investigate complaints and impose penalties on operators who neglected or mistreated residents.

This non-government agency would be governed by a board of directors made up of people with a background in the retirement home business or a competency in the field.

As a complement, the government would enact a bill of rights, which would require a facility to spell out the true cost of care, accommodation and other services and “promote zero tolerance of abuse.” It is unclear how it would be enforced.

“Although the government is trying to convince the public that the proposed legislation is creating a third-party regulatory model, the model as drafted is more similar to enhanced self-regulation,” Wahl said. “We urge the committee to use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right and provide proper protections to individuals living in retirement homes.”

She raised three principal concerns:

There is a high risk the new regulatory authority would reflect the interests of the multi-million-dollar retirement home industry, not those of consumers.

Although Phillips said he would look for board members “who understand the industry but are not there representing the industry,” ACE is skeptical. Third-party regulatory bodies almost always end up being industry-dominated.

Complaints would be investigated internally.

ACE points out that the Ontario Retirement Communities Association, the voluntary umbrella group that represents 70 per cent of the industry, already has a complaints hotline. Few residents know it exists. Those who do are reluctant to use it for fear of retaliation.

Bill 21 would set the stage for a two-tiered elder-care system.

Seniors who couldn’t get into a government-regulated nursing home (more than 25,000 are now waiting for beds) would face pressure to move into a privately run retirement home. For those with the money to buy extra health-care services, this would be a reasonable solution. But those with limited means would be unable to afford the care they need.

These are important issues. It wouldn’t hurt to slow down, address seniors’ concerns and ensure the Retirement Homes Act is a genuine step forward.

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