Alberta's seniors deserve accountability from government & continuing care operators

November 27, 2020
EDMONTON

Alberta's seniors deserve accountability from government & continuing care operators

The Alberta government’s most recent announcement of new COVID-19 restrictions did little to promote the protection of seniors who reside in Alberta’s continuing care system. We heard nothing by way of a staffing plan to ensure that seniors receive much-needed care, or to address the shortages that will continue to be exacerbated by limitations set on families’ visitation.

During Wednesday’s daily COVID-19 update, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, announced that Alberta Health Services would be looking to move existing patients out of acute care and into continuing care facilities in order to make room for COVID-19 patients and the additional ICU beds they are anticipated to require. Alberta Health, AHS, and the province’s continuing care operators will be working together to expand the availability of beds. Dr. Hinshaw says AHS will make more than 2,000 acute care beds and up to 400 ICU beds available for COVID-19 patients as needed.

As cost-cutting measures in the mid-1990s, the province closed half of its hospital beds (from 13,000 to 6,500). At the time, Alberta’s population was around 2.6 million people. In 2015, Dr. Donna Wilson estimated that Alberta would need to open more than 3,300 beds to alleviate the burden on emergency rooms. As per CIHI data, Alberta currently has just 2 acute care beds per 1000 population, ahead of only Ontario and BC. 

“Alberta has been behind the eight ball for decades,” says Sandra Azocar, Executive Director of Friends of Medicare. “It is no wonder that we find ourselves in this current situation where these decisions are having to be made, and we’re having to ration beds. What this government seems to forget is no matter how many beds we can procure, it’s meaningless without staff.” 

Meanwhile, continuing care operators in the province have closed more than 500 beds in an attempt to curb COVID-19 outbreaks in their facilities. As of November 26th 324 of the 510 reported deaths (64 per cent) have been in long-term care facilities or supportive/home living sites.

“Each of these Albertans who lost their lives were someone’s family,” says Azocar. “They will be missed at their families’ celebrations, and their loved ones will be left to wonder how they spent their last few hours in this world. But nearly a year into this pandemic, we rarely hear condolences from this government anymore, let alone the outrage one would expect at such a devastating loss to our communities.”

Back in April, when Alberta recorded its first death in our province’s continuing care facilities, the province responded by setting necessary limits on where staff could work, including limiting workers in long-term care and designated supportive living to working in only one location. Until this measure was put in place, the majority of care staff regularly moved between several sites, as they were unable to make ends meet with the number of hours they are given in a single facility. Most workers had, and still have, multiple jobs that they move between in care homes, hospitals, home care and other sites. Amendments have since been made, and many sites have been given exemptions as operators have been unable to meet staffing needs without allowing staff movement to move between various jobs. 

In the past several months, the government has given over $200 million to private and non-profit continuing care operators “to address lost accommodation revenue” caused by COVID-19, intended to ensure that appropriate staffing is in place. Yet month after month, we continue to see an increase in the number of seniors and staff in these facilities succumbing to this virus. Operators of seniors’ facilities have been left to make decisions as to how they will deal with the challenges presented by the presence of COVID-19 in their facilities, but no one is making them accountable to ensure that extra funding is allocated to staffing and the implementation of safety measures. During the November 16th, 2020 daily COVID-19 update, Dr. Hinshaw stated that “the most common introduction of infection is staff.” 

“While continuing care operators and their shareholders continue to profit, we continue to hear that staff are being left without pay if they need to isolate,” says Azocar. “Staff are being less cautious, and continuing to go to work because they can’t afford to stay home. Operators aren’t staffing these facilities properly, which puts not only staff, but their families and residents in danger.”

AHS has indicated that they are ready to respond to staffing shortages in private continuing care facilities, meaning once again, our public health care system is being asked to step in to compensate for the failure of the private sector.

Now more than ever, we have a responsibility to stand up for the most vulnerable, and those that helped to build this province. Seniors have been at risk due to staffing shortages long before this pandemic hit. They cannot continue to ride a second wave of COVID-19 without more oversight and accountability.

To support residents and staff in Alberta’s continuing care system, and to curb the spread of COVID-19, Friends of Medicare is urgently calling for the following measures from our provincial government:

  • The provincial government must support the workforce to be able to work full-time whenever possible, and to ensure sick pay to allow staff to follow provincial isolation guidelines.
  • Staffing levels must be immediately put in place so that seniors can receive the care they need. Where gaps in staffing and care levels exist, the most robust possible recruitment of appropriately trained staff must be implemented as per existing regulations. 
  • Provincial government resources and policy must be immediately directed to improve wages and conditions for staff, and to support the stabilization of the workforce and recruitment efforts, with the provision that all operators (public, not-for-profit, and for-profit alike) be obliged to expend these funds on direct care staffing and not to offset ‘revenue loss’ for these private providers. 
  • Continuing care outbreaks data must be reported and available to all Albertans. 
  • Regular, unannounced inspections must be implemented to ensure compliance with high standards of care and safety, and current health orders by the CMOH.

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