NDP Leader John Horgan has announced a $1.4-billion decade-long capital plan to build new long-term-care facilities and eliminate multi-resident rooms, as well as providing greater oversight of private operators of senior homes and a continued wage bump to keep staff at single sites.
“I believe seniors in their latter years should have the dignity of one room with just them — that’s the goal,” said Horgan, speaking to the media at a campaign stop in Surrey.
The NDP is promising to make permanent a wage top-up it put in place in May so all workers in private and public seniors care homes would earn the same wage, allowing them to remain at one facility, rather than shuttling between jobs at various sites. B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix has said that top-up is costing the province $10 to $15 million a month.
Horgan laid the blame for COVID-19 outbreaks in seniors homes at the feet of the former B.C. Liberal government, which he said provided inadequate funding of long-term care and assisted living.
“The outbreaks at senior care facilities at the beginning of the pandemic were a direct result of B.C. Liberal choices, a direct result of their decision to reduce the number of dollars that you could make when you’ve worked in the sector,” said Horgan.
The office of the B.C. Seniors Advocate has said for years — prior to the election of the NDP minority government in 2017 — that the majority of senior homes in the province did not meet the minimum requirements put in place by the former B.C. Liberal government for the amount of health-care time given to each resident.
Health-care providers have also long advocated for single-resident rooms in hospitals and care homes.
On Wednesday, the NDP leader spoke about the Liberals’ 2002 Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act, commonly known as Bill 29, and the Health Sector Partnerships Agreement Act, known as Bill 94, introduced in 2003.
As a result of the legislation, seniors homes on Vancouver Island saw contracts flipped several times — reducing health-care workers’ wages, gutting benefits and subjecting elderly clients to ever-changing staff.
“Over 17 years, they never met their own standard,” said Horgan. “In fact, when we formed government in 2017, nine out of 10 care homes in British Columbia were not meeting the minimal standard that the B.C. Liberals have put in place.”
The high number of outbreaks and resulting deaths in senior care homes — mostly in Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health — has prompted some to call for a public inquiry into seniors care in the province. The province has committed to at least a review.
Horgan said details of the seniors plan will be contained in the NDP’s soon-to-be released platform.
Asked if he hoped to phase out private-care providers, Horgan said private operators are needed. “I believe there can be a healthy mix.”
In response to Horgan’s announcement, Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said solutions and remedies in seniors care are needed now, adding the NDP’s “grand plans” in the past have “really amounted to nothing.”
As for Horgan blaming his party for problems in seniors homes, Wilkinson said the “NDP blame game is getting tired for everybody.”
Wilkinson said he supports the single-site order for seniors homes made in the spring by Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer.
Asked about the permanent wage top-up, Wikinson said the province needs long-term care workers “and they need to be properly compensated so they can do the job safely working in a single facility.”
On the mix of private and public operators, Wilkinson said his mother lived in assisted living and then a care home and the most important thing is not to disrupt seniors who are in an established environment where they have friends and relationships with staff.
Terry Lake, CEO of the B.C. Care Providers Association and a former B.C. Liberal health minister, said private operators are happy to be transparent and live up to standards that should be in place for all seniors care providers.
“We all should be performing to the highest standards possible and be very transparent about how we do that.”
The B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union revealed polling on Wednesday that showed more than half of British Columbians, 54 per cent, would prefer to see not-for-profit operators in charge of new long-term care beds.
Lake pointed to a comparison between Ontario and B.C. seniors homes in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, saying “B.C. was held up as a much better model.”
Lake said there is a lot B.C. is doing right and to pin the outbreaks on long-term-care ownership models “is not borne out by the data.”
Meanwhile, the Hospital Employees’ Union says making the wage top-up permanent will provide stability and certainty for seniors and workers in a sector where there were wide gaps in wages and benefits from one care home to another.
The HEU blamed those gaps on legislation and policies enacted by the former B.C. Liberal government, starting in 2002.