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N.S. nursing homes ask province to delay withholding funds over vacant beds during pandemic

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The Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association says its members feel “backed into a corner” by a recent provincial directive to start refilling empty beds, or risk daily funding deductions of more than $130 per vacancy.

The ultimatum to fill all but a “pre-approved” number of beds was sent to some nursing homes last week by the Department of Health and Wellness, as a result of “significant access and flow issues,” and an increased number of people waiting for permanent placement in homes.

“Given the current epidemiology, lower risk of exposure and availability of (personal protective equipment), we must now resume work to ensure safe and timely access to nursing home beds for those who need them most,” wrote Kevin Orrell, the department’s deputy minister, in a letter to a nursing home dated Sept. 14.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, many long-term care homes (LTCs) across the province kept a number of their beds empty — a safeguard in the event they needed to isolate residents who had tested positive for the virus, or were displaying symptoms.

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Michele Lowe, managing director for the Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association, said many vacant rooms remain in use daily for isolation purposes and it’s “quite concerning” to see the province order most of those spaces be removed. Her organization represents 76 LTCs — about 83 per cent of all facilities in the province.

“I would say certainly administrators across the province feel very much that they’ve been backed into a corner,” Lowe told Global News.

“They certainly can’t go without that funding, but at the same time, they need to balance all the risks and without a concrete plan — or at least the sharing of that plan — we really are in a very difficult situation.”

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Funding for nursing homes is contingent on maintaining a “full complement of beds,” according to the Sept. 14 letter from Orrell. Nursing homes will be permitted to keep between one and three per cent of their beds vacant, depending on various factors, but deductions of $131.68 per day, per empty bed will take place beyond that.

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Lowe said many nursing homes across the province have taken on new residents throughout the summer and during the pandemic.

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While “everyone agrees” Nova Scotians who require long-term care should not be in hospitals, she said she’d like to see a comprehensive provincial plan in place to address that, and the second wave of COVID-19, before funding is slashed for unfilled beds.

The association is asking the government to delay withholding funds until the LTC sector can weigh in on the development of that plan.

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According to the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA), there are 368 people currently in the hospital awaiting placement in nursing homes, and according to the Health Department, there were 447 vacant beds as of last week.

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In an emailed statement, department spokesperson Dan Harrison said the “safety of residents and staff” is “the most important factor in all occupancy decisions,” and the province is working with LTCs to determine whether occupancy changes are required to respond to any future outbreaks.

The Sept. 14 letter from Orrell said nursing homes have 30 days from the date they received the directive to make sure their beds are filled.

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Barbara Adams, a Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative MLA and vocal advocate on issues impacting LTCs, said the government is putting an undue burden on nursing homes.

“I think it’s just an example of a heavy-handed government that is trying to squeeze the nursing home managers into solving a problem that the government created,” she said.

Carla Adams, spokesperson for the NSHA, said the “significant number of people in hospital beds that should be in another setting” is impacting acute care operations, which can in turn, impact wait times in emergency departments.