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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This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 5th, 2020 at 11:07 am and is filed under Child & Family Policy Context. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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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