TORONTO – Ontario is changing the way it funds long-term care bed construction in a bid to spur a much-needed expansion, as the province moved Wednesday to loosen strict pandemic visitation rules at the homes hard-hit by COVID-19.
Premier Doug Ford announced the changes at Ontario’s legislature acknowledging that the pandemic has highlighted the short-comings of the province’s long-term care system, including a severe bed shortage his government repeatedly promised to address over the past two years.
“What we need is significant investment in the long-term care sector,” he said. “We need to tear down and redevelop old homes and we need to build new ones. We need thousands of new long-term care beds, and we need them fast.”
Ontario’s long-term care homes have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic with outbreaks killing more than 1,700 people and prompting the government to create a commission to investigate.
Long-term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton said because COVID-19 cases in the province are dropping the government will loosen rules that have restricted visits to long-term care homes.
She said starting Wednesday, a person visiting a resident outside a home will no longer need to attest that they’ve taken a COVID-19 test within the previous two weeks.
Indoor visits, which are currently limited to essential workers and families of palliative patients, will be permitted as of July 22, with a two-person limit.
In those instances, visitors will still need to attest that they’ve had a COVID-19 test within the last two weeks and had a negative result.
Essential caregivers will also be allowed back into the facilities when visits resume.
“This is a process that we will be vigilant with and we’ll be monitoring,” Fullerton said.
Meanwhile, the Ford government pledged in 2018 to spend $1.75 billion over five years building 15,000 new long-term care beds while renovating an existing 15,000.
The government said Wednesday a new formula will pay builders more, and include grants to cover up to 17 per cent of up-front capital costs.
The Progressive Conservatives said the creation of thousands of needed beds has been slow because the previous system was outdated, so the charges are intended to spark building within the sector.
But the additional costs will also limit how far that previously promised $1.75 billion in funding will stretch, as it’s now expected to pay for 8,000 new beds and 12,000 renovated beds.
Ford said his government will present a new plan to build 30,000 new beds over the next decade in the coming weeks.
“We will continue to plan for more long-term care beds until we reach our goal and we’re getting shovels in the ground,” he said.
The province also promised that all new long-term care facilities, and those being renovated, will have air conditioning.
The policy will take effect immediately, but officials could not say how much it will cost the government or provide a timeline for installation of the cooling systems.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the new funding formula change is another empty promise even as the serious long-term care bed shortage drags on.
“The announcements get made, but the beds never get built,” she said.
Liberal Leader Stephen Del Duca said the Ford government has broken its promise on bed construction and the announcement does nothing to address immediate concerns during the pandemic.
“Flu season and a potential second wave of COVID-19 are on the horizon, but Doug Ford has no plan to fix the ongoing crisis in long term care by fixing the staffing shortage,” he said in a statement.
The CEO of the Ontario Long Term Care Association praised the changes.
“The government’s increased level of capital funding will help a number of operators who were not able to previously secure financing to rebuild their homes,” Donna Duncan said in a statement. “We are committed to working with the government to expedite the capital projects that are made feasible through this modernized program.”
The secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario said the Ford government put an immediate focus on expanding beds only in non-profit homes while placing a moratorium on new for-profit beds.
“No one should be making money from the care of the elderly and vulnerable in our residential homes,” Candace Rennick said in a statement. “It is clear that this is – along with an increase in full-time staffing – the lesson from the pandemic.”
Ontario reported 102 new cases of COVID-19 and nine new deaths related to the virus on Wednesday.
The total number of cases now stands at 37,052, which includes 2,732 deaths and 32,920 cases marked as resolved.