Mike Harris expanded the privatization of long-term care. Doug Ford is discovering that wasn’t a magic cure

Posted on May 5, 2020 in Child & Family Policy Context

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TheStar.com – Politics/Opinion

A quarter-century ago, the populist premier of the day wanted to fix nursing homes in Ontario.

Mike Harris had a lasting impact on long-term care when his Progressive Conservatives oversaw the expansion of private ownership in a sector short on regulations and standards. Harris, having spearheaded for-profit ownership back then, now profits handsomely from it himself.

Today, as chair of Chartwell Retirement Residences, the former premier presides over a sprawling operation that describes itself as “the largest retirement living company in Canada.” Didn’t know that?

Neither, says Doug Ford, did he.

Replying to my questions Monday, our current premier said he’s spoken to the former premier but once, briefly, during this pandemic. Long-term care, where the majority of COVID-19 deaths have taken place in this province, never came up.

“He asked how I was doing and to be frank, I didn’t even know he was the chair of Chartwell,” Ford told me in his televised daily briefing, where he often rattles off the names of CEOs whom he encourages do their best in the pandemic.

I’d asked Ford if he had an opinion, as premier, about the difference between public and private ownership, given the carnage in long-term care today. The premier took a quick pass at the topic before passing on it.

“Well, I think there’s a difference, but what I’ve said right from the day one, Martin, the system’s broke and we are going to fix it. But if you don’t mind, Martin, I’m going to pass it over to the minister of long-term care.”

But did Ford have a message for Harris or other operators involved in long-term care in Ontario?

“We’re gonna have that opportunity to sit down and fix these issues right across the board,” he replied. As for Harris, “the conversation lasted a couple of minutes — ‘How’s your family doing?’ ‘How’s yours?’ — and that was about it.”

One wonders, when family came up, if Ford mentioned the thousands of other families that have been affected in this crisis (he has mentioned publicly that his own mother-in-law became infected with COVID-19 in a Toronto nursing home last month).

Today, from his perch as chair, Harris is well placed to look back at what he kick-started from the premier’s chair, and see how it ended up. But Ford is in a better position to take a fresh look at what his predecessor did — and, with the benefit of hindsight, to re-examine the system he inherited.

Privatization predated Harris, just as many problems predated Ford. But the Tories back then made it easier for owners by easing staff ratios and requirements, just as the Tories last year scaled back annual comprehensive inspections.

The premier says he’ll “fix it.” Harris had a fix, too.

Ford says “there’s a difference” between for-profit ownership versus non-profit. Harris presumably thought so, too, but what’s the difference between their views?

After Ford mentioned they’d chatted, I reached out to Harris for comment, to which a Chartwell spokesperson replied: “Mr. Harris has confirmed that Mr. Ford’s statement is correct and there is nothing additional to add.”

There are few quick fixes, because our long-term care crisis has been a long time coming: Private versus non-profit or public ownership? Single rooms versus double or triple? Nursing home homes versus home care?

One solution is to stop low-wage, part-time workers flitting from one facility to another, as a way to reduce infection transmission between homes. Yet it took weeks for the Progressive Conservative government to impose the ban (a loophole allowed for temporary help as needed).

And at precisely that time, Ford invited health-care workers from acute-care hospitals and army clinics to swoop in on nursing homes. Physicians frequently go from private clinics to nursing homes, acting as involuntary vectors of infection.

Separation surely saves lives, but a living wage with decent working conditions might spare us the need for SWAT teams from hospitals and medics from army bases. Either way, we won’t know for a while how profound the differences were in infection control between profit-seeking owners and non-profits.

As an example, the vast Chartwell network overseen by Harris lists nine of its 23 long-term care residences in Ontario affected by COVID-19 infections, and seven of its 96 “retirement residences” affected. A spokesperson noted Monday that “We continue to follow all recommendations of the Chief Medical Officer and Public Health.”

But we also know that not-for-profit operators have been hit hard as well. The Salvation Army’s Meighen Manor in midtown Toronto has reported 68 confirmed cases among residents and 34 deaths in the 168-bed facility, with 45 staff also infected as of Monday — so there is no ideological immunity conferred by COVID-19.

There is a contradiction in the criticisms of long-term care: We want to have it all for nothing — better beds but more of them; more quantity and more quality; single rooms with private bathrooms but without the wait lists; more for less.

All this while also rescuing the economy and the rest of society — investing in child care, all-day kindergarten, post-secondary education, transit, hospital care for the rest of us, wage subsidies for the jobless.

It’s a long list. Little wonder long-term care always got short shrift in perennial election cycles.

Today, in a pandemic cycle, beware the panaceas. There’s no magic cure for what ails nursing homes.


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12 Responses to “Mike Harris expanded the privatization of long-term care. Doug Ford is discovering that wasn’t a magic cure”

  1. The politicians say they will fix the problems, but instead use ineffective band aids that exasperate the problem. Privatization invites negligence because the profit is more important than the people. Such as cleanliness. Why do PSW’s have to clean the facilities? It is their job to provide care and assist the clients. The agenda of privatization is to make money, and so the staff has been cut and PSW’s have to clean and do laundry, as well as care and assist the residents. 6 people are now doing the work of 10. From what I’ve seen, the system has not improved with privatizations but diminished. There aren’t enough staff on hand to get the entire residence ready in two hours, so people are being undressed, washed, teeth brushed, lotions and ointments applied, shaved, and redressed in 15 minutes or less. Imagine doing those tasks properly for yourself in 15 min, let alone having them done to you by someone else. Where is the dignity for these people? PSW’s deserve more time to properly care for the residents! These people are retired. Some of them may have a predisposition to waking early, but many are being woken up and rushed through the process just so they can wait two hours for breakfast. Jobs that require care, such as early education and personal support work should not be profit minded. Why do corporate interests supersede human interests? How has money and profit become more important than our loved ones? These politicians say that saving lives is more important than saving/making money, but their actions say otherwise.

  2. Carol Bird-Thompson says:

    My parents 89 and 87 years old live in a Chartwell Retirement complex in Sault Ste. Marie.
    We haves been pleased with so far no Covid 19 out breaks. I will give credit to the staff for this and our low numbers in our city and area so far.

    My complaint is the food that they serve the residents at the complex.
    It is both tasteless and lacking of nutritional value.

    With the PRICE these residents pay to live in this luxury retirement home you would expect decent meals.

    The folks have spoken to management, and higher up the ladder ( falls on deaf ears).

    My father has lost a lot of weight since moving in a couple years ago. He observes a large amount of food goes to waste as many plates are left uneaten!

  3. Diane says:

    I have read comment after comment~ I so agree with the many that have posted their horror’s & knowledge of care their loved ones are now receiving mine is the same and on going with my Mother being in privatization~ long-term care. long. I await to have her transferred.to a NON profit which when we arrived was never told of the difference so what is going on with even the upper aid workers out their that place our loved one in homes as such! ONCE AGAIN : YOU WASH MY BACK I’LL WASH YOURS .. JUST UNREAL THESE FOLKS NEED A HONEST VOICE

  4. jay Barrons says:

    Its quite funny how many of the posters here, maybe those with union affiliation, keep on trying to resurrect the ghost of Mike Harris when we had two Liberal Wynn-Mcguinty governments that had a chance to right this suggested wrong. So what happened? Where was your outrage against the Liberal Government when there was an implicit policy to only review nursing homes when there were explicit complaints (on a need to know basis). Its too easy to blame the current government when Wynn- McGinty have blood on their hands due to this cozy policy with the industry. Also of note where were the unions when this was happening ( the same union members that allowed seniors to perish in the nursing homes). The narrative does not work this time unions do not automatically mean wonderful service and a loving enviroment.

  5. hecate says:


    Please put a date on each comment, and please put up a category heading for “seniors care homes”. You are part of the carelessness.

    Mr.Asenault: How much per month do you and/or your family pay? Also it’s obvious from your comment you’re not bed-ridden in a ‘nursing’ home, or dementia care placement, but in one of Chartwell’s special few, in hotel-like accommodations for wealthy well-connected people. Once you “slip” you and your family will find out what is being written about here, and what is the whole story for everyone but a minor fraction of a percent of Canadians. If you are so well looked after you can make such an ignorant statement, maybe use your ability to help look after others and advocate for them. Write Letters to Editors, stating what you see others experiencing. Start with the bedbugs.

  6. david cairns says:

    My mother was in Extendicare in St. Catharines. I don’t know if it is public or private, but she received excellent care for the six months before she passed away. I believe that no matter what political party is in power, that errors are made. Bickering and name calling about policies accomplishes nothing. Suggest alternate methods and approaches and give some idea of a solution, rather than just criticize. Constructive criticism is best, but just to criticize because you are an opponent, turns me away from that politician.

    Dave Cairns North Pelham

  7. Leslie Cochrane says:

    I witnessed the difference in extended health care before Harris’ privatization extension – and after – when my father first went into a long-term care home in 1994. The first year was so wonderful, because my dad received much needed and appreciated attention from the friendly, caring staff at the home. Staff with whom he was familiar because each hall had their own nurse’s station. After a year, because of Harris’ focus on profit over people, my father increasingly became a victim of neglectful abuse.The separate nurses’s stations were abandoned and amalgamated in one impersonal desk closer to the entrance, and far from my father’s unit. The health-care staff was cut dramatically – to the point that there was no staff to look in on him at night and help him when he was choking on a piece of food from the previous days’ dinner. He was only found choking when the caregiver came in to attend to the residents in the morning. He ultimately died from an infection in a lung, due to inhaling another piece of food at a later date. And at the end, my sister saw a huge, deep abscess on his buttock that had not been attended to – and must have been severely painful for him.
    Today, my mother is in a Chartwellextended-care home, and during the last three or four months, while under quarantine, has experienced rapid demise in her mental state. I am convinced that this would have not happened – or might have occurred at a slower rate – had it not been for the boredom, loneliness and depression she suffered from the EC Homes’ shutdown, and her isolation from others, especially her children. I am also convinced that the severe Covid crisis regarding the enormous rates of infection and death amongst the elderly in nursing homes – would have had far less of an impact, if Harris had not extended the privatization – as well as diminished the public regulation and accountability of nursing homes.
    If logic is applied, it is easy to understand why putting profit over helpless people can lead to disaster, as it has. We owe a lot to our elderly. They participated in a war to maintain our freedom and democracy. They supported the establishment of universal care in Canada – and the pension plan. Most of all, my parents took care of me and my siblings, and while they made sure others were taken care of, we are trying to do the same for our mother now. It’s an irony that she has come to the point in her advancing dementia, that her most oft-said comment is, “I am being used”. A pretty astute statement from a woman who had been so lucid prior to the Covid shut-down of her home.
    Greed is the motivating factor that distinguishes private from public. Our elderly should not be commodities to be used to advance fortunes for a few elite. As with Mike Harris.
    I was appalled to find out that he has a cushy, well-paying, part-time job overseeing my mother’s nursing home – a disaster of his making. He set himself up to shamelessly profit from changes he made in the system – making it easier to use our elderly loved ones to pad his account. This – is a gross violation – a great conflict of interest, and either he should resign and face a hefty fine – or be charged outright, with the crime of setting up a system of such potential abuse, for ultimate personal profit.
    My mother’s home has constantly been understaffed – especially at night – while the staff that is there, is underpaid and overworked. The tuition for the courses for elderly care are too expensive for people, when most care-givers in these homes, come from our immigrant population. Under premier Ford, the tuition has even been raised – when it should be either subsidized or free – to encourage more employment in a sector that is constantly understaffed. Staff are also continuously taking on other EC jobs to make a decent living – or taking jobs in hospitals, which pays more for comparable positions. Such is a system set up by Harris – which- according to logic – can only fail. It took a pandemic for Premier Ford to recognize the obvious flaws, when he had no option but to take over some of the most vulnerable and negligent homes, and temporarily bring in extra staff. The way it should have been in the first place. And then, added an insulting 1% raise in pay for health-care workers who are exhausted, while risking their lives to keep our loved ones safe.

  8. A. Zanchetta says:

    I agree, Mike Harris did a lot of damage to the Ontario Health system. The myth about private companies doing it better is just that, a myth. My mother and father spent their last years in a Chartwell nursing home. I had to advocate many, many times for their care. Hygiene, dressing and food were often the issue. I would often ask my mother how she was being cared for?
    The answer was always the same, “They do what they want here”.

  9. Mary Vaughan says:

    Mike Harris is a horrible, evil man. He killed all these innocent people in the last few months and has the audacity to have that smirk on his face. These people that died helped this monster become a fat, rich white man and he is laughing at their expense all the way to the bank. How this monster sleeps at night is something I don’t understand. I lost my mother in law in April and I can tell you it was not a pleasant sight to see. I have never wished anyone ill but I hope when his time is up that he goes just like those poor innocent people he helped kill. He should be ashamed of himself and the only good thing he can do is donate his salary to the front line workers who only make minimum wage.

  10. Joseph Asenault says:

    I live in a Chartwell senior residence and we have not had a covid-19 case here yet. I have to say the administration here has done an excellent job.

  11. Marilyn Hewitt says:

    As Premier, Mr. Harris singlehandedly attacked the health, education and social services professions during his time as Premier.
    No follow up to those who were investigated for Cancer, they just died. No one cared, except family & friends.
    Programs for children at risk were shelved, families & children were left to flounder. Those responsible did not care, the families were devastated.
    My son floundered, no money to fix it. We were left in a mess.
    Harris’ motto during his tenure was “women and children first!” First in line for cuts, first in line to
    flounder and first in line to fail.
    Mr. Harris is a dangerous man. Maybe the current Premier will take him on. Maybe!
    Otherwise, the people of Ontario should take matters into their own hands.

  12. E. E. Willson says:

    Mike Harris has been a ruthless killer from his first day in politics.

    Hospitals, long term care homes, nursing staff, affordable electricity, the education system …the list goes on.

    His only interest is in appointing himself and his Conservative cronies in million dollar directorships, where they can do as much damage as possible, without even being elected.


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