Union leaders, advocates urge N.S. government to require minimum care hours in nursing homes

Click to play video: 'Union leaders renewing their call for legislated minimum care standards in nursing homes across N.S.'
Union leaders renewing their call for legislated minimum care standards in nursing homes across N.S.
The call for legislated minimum care standards in nursing comes after the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many facilities, their residents and staff into a state of crisis. But the health department says, setting certain minimum standards isn’t the way to go. Elizabeth McSheffrey explains. – Jan 12, 2021

Union leaders and advocates for Nova Scotia’s long-term care sector are urging the provincial government to implement minimum daily care hours for residents in their facilities.

Research suggests a minimum of 4.1 hours of direct care is required to meet basic needs each day, yet Nova Scotia is falling far short of that benchmark, they told the members of the government’s standing committee on health Tuesday.

“I can almost guarantee you there’s not a child at the IWK Health Centre that’s waiting two hours or an hour-and-a-half to get fed,” said Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union (NSNU).

“That wouldn’t happen with our children and it shouldn’t happen with our seniors.”

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

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The NSNU, Unifor, NSGEU, CUPE and Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association — all of which represent workers in long-term care homes, or the long-term care homes themselves — say the sector is in a state of “crisis.”

Urgent action is needed in the next six months, they add, lest the crisis deepen.

“All the studies show that quality of care for residents rests squarely on the quality of jobs,” said Govind Rao, Atlantic region research representative for CUPE, which represents more than 5,700 long-term care workers.

“Do we really need to ask why we can’t retain workers to a sector that pays you less the longer you work in it, doesn’t grant vacation time and condemns you to live in poverty?”

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Union leaders reported their members’ salaries don’t keep up with inflation and are so low, workers often travel to different long-term care homes to pick up additional shifts.

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It’s a crisis not created by the COVID-19 pandemic, said the NSGEU’s Jason Maclean, but exacerbated and publicized by it.

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“For years, (the government) has ignored cries of workers and the unions who represent them, trying to call attention to the crisis in this sector, all the while cutting long-term care budgets,” he explained.

“At the outset of this pandemic, we tried to raise critical concerns of frontline workers. Not only did government ignore us, they accused us of fearmongering and hyperbole.”

Read more: NSGEU president says he’s not taking part in Northwood review, calls for public inquiry

The provincial government is still in the midst of implementing the five recommendations and 22 action items from a 2019 report by its expert panel on long-term care.

On Tuesday, Deputy Health Minister Kevin Orrell acknowledged the sector has serious staffing, infrastructure and spacing challenges, and that the government has “differences” in opinion from some of the unions.

The Health Department, however, remains committed to meeting and exceeding best practices in the sector.

“We continue to draw on the advice and expertise of our provincial experts as well as others around the globe,” said Orrell. “We will continue to work with our many partners — present company included — on new approaches and models of care.”

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Click to play video: 'Family speaks out about alleged neglect at N.S. long-term care facility'
Family speaks out about alleged neglect at N.S. long-term care facility

Orrell said the government will not be implementing the minimum 4.1 hours of care per resident any time soon, as there’s no “one size fits all” standard that applies across the sector.

“Hours of care depend on the acuity of patients,” he explained. “Some nursing homes have very, very sick, more elderly patients, and the hours of care would be different in different homes.”

To implement minimum care hours would be to oblige care provides to have “excessive hours” some residents may not need, he said.

Michele Lowe, director of the Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association, said some long-term care facilities in the province have pushed back against minimum care hours, fearing that once a number is written into legislation, they’ll discover more hours are desperately needed.

As it stands, roughly 40,000 Nova Scotians receive support from the continuing care sector. About 1,600 additional patients have been moved into long-term care homes since March 2020.

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There are 133 licensed long-term care facilities in the province with roughly 8,000 beds between them.

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