The Nova Scotia government has withheld $229,000 in funding from 24 long-term care homes across the province that did not immediately fill vacant beds when required to last fall.
In September, after the first wave of COVID-19 subsided, the Department of Health and Wellness directed some facilities to fill all but a “pre-approved” number of beds, as more than 360 people in hospitals awaited placement in long-term care.
Facilities that did not fill the vacancies by mid-October were docked $131.68 per bed per day — a tab that “stings” according to Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association managing director, Michele Lowe.
“That is a significant amount of money, it’s the difference between participating in some type of operational upgrade and not being able to do it,” she told Global News.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this … we need to be able to support nursing homes and long-term care facilities in Nova Scotia, we cannot penalize them for the situation they’ve been faced with.”
Global News obtained the numbers from the Health Department, whose funding for nursing homes is contingent on beds being filled.
In the first wave, Lowe said many homes kept a portion of beds vacant as an infection prevention measure; a place to isolate residents who became sick and a way to cut down on double occupancy rates.
It’s unclear how the $229,000 in deductions was spread between the 24 homes. If withheld evenly, it would add up to roughly $9,500 per facility — enough to upgrade floor tiles, buy mobility equipment, or give aging homes a facelift, she added.
In an interview, Health Minister Leo Glavine said the $229,000 was allocated elsewhere in the continuing care sector’s response to the pandemic.
Examples include temporary care beds, increased community supports for those waiting for long-term care beds, and converting some residential care beds into more expensive nursing home beds.
“Because these facilities were not providing their normal care for residents in those rooms, we needed to fund another part of the system to provide supports during the COVID first wave and then preparation for the second wave,” Glavine explained.
Facilities were permitted to keep between one and three per cent of their beds vacant, but many are still not receiving their full funding, as 334 nursing home beds remained empty as of Jan. 19.
“They are getting some of the per diem because staff must be maintained, but there are some services that would not need to be provided if you have three per cent of your rooms without residents,” said the minister.
Glavine said he expects that if COVID-19 cases remain low, all homes will bring their occupancy levels back up to 100 per cent. He added that additional funding has been providing to long-term care homes throughout the pandemic.
As it stands, five of six new regional care units promised by the province are up and running, ready to isolate, house and care for any vulnerable residents who test positive for COVID-19, alleviating the need for a complement of empty beds.
That plan was not fully developed, however, when the province told nursing homes to fill up their beds last September.
Janet Hazleton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union, said she understands why long-term care beds needed to be filled with haste last fall; there were roughly 447 empty beds at the time, and 368 Nova Scotians waiting for them.
She did, however, raise concerns about how the withheld funds may impact staffing levels, particularly in non-profit long-term care homes where margins are thin.
Jan Marriott, whose mother resides in long-term care at Northwood Halifax, said she’s disappointed to see any funding withheld regardless of empty beds, given how much nursing homes are struggling to cope with the demands of COVID-19.
“It’s a slap in the face for the staff, they’re working as hard as they can caring for people,” she said. “It just makes me sad because it has real-time implications for vulnerable people that can’t speak for themselves.”
According to numbers from the Health Department, there are 133 licensed long-term care facilities in the province with roughly 8,000 beds between them. Roughly 40,000 Nova Scotians receive support from the continuing care sector, and about 1,600 new patients have been moved into long-term care homes since March 2020.