AUPE calls on government to use Seniors’ Week to commit to better way
As far too many Albertans and other Canadians weep for the loved ones they have lost to COVID-19, we must ensure that the pain we have endured and the lessons we have learned are not forgotten.
The way the virus wreaked havoc in continuing-care facilities, leaving a trail of deaths in its wake, has revealed that the way we care for patients and residents in these facilities, most of them seniors, is not working.
The problems created by a patchwork of public and private operators have simply been too great to cope with the COVID-19 crisis. Alberta and Canada must prepare for the next pandemic now by changing our approach.
This is, however, also an opportunity to make permanent and positive change for every-day care for our senior citizens, not just to be ready for the next crisis.
AUPE and many others have said for many years that creating this patchwork of public, for-profit and not-for-profit care leads to an unacceptable range of care standards, a lack of transparency in the delivery of care and a lack of transparency in how our money is being spent in private facilities.
Meanwhile, with Premier Jason Kenney is saying the state of public emergency will end on June 15, and with Alberta opening up as part of the economic relaunch, the province should be bracing for a second COVID-19 wave. The threat to our seniors is about to get worse, not better.
The evidence is clear. The solution is simple.
To mark Seniors’ Week, AUPE is calling on the Alberta and federal governments to commit to creating a continuing-care system that works for everyone, one that parallels our much-revered public health-care system.
To date, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 109 Albertans in continuing care, more than 76 per cent of the total of 143 deaths in the province. More than half the pandemic deaths in continuing care have been in for-profit facilities, with only 10 per cent in public facilities.
There have been COVID-19 outbreaks at 39 continuing-care facilities in the province, seven of them public, 22 for-profit, 10 not-for-profit.
Publicly run facilities represents about 20 per cent of the beds in the system, but only 13 per cent of the beds in outbreak facilities.
Freelance Canadian journalist Nora Loreto, who is also editor of the Canadian Association of Labour Media (CALM), has been tracking COVID-19 deaths in Canadian residential facilities.
She says: “Based on my tracking, I have found that COVID-19 has killed more than 5,900 people in residential care, including assisted living facilities, correctional facilities and homeless shelters. This amounts to approximately 86 per cent of Canada’s confirmed corona virus death toll, the vast majority of which have been in long-term-care and retirement residences.”
The time has come to bring all continuing care under one roof in a publicly funded and publicly delivered system.
We can avoid the political problems that come with reopening the Canada Health Act by creating a new, separate, entirely public continuing-care system.
This is not controversial. Indeed, most Albertans would welcome it.
Nor would it be expensive. We are already paying for this care, but we have chosen to channel that money to private organizations, often to be diverted into excessive profits for shareholders and salaries for executives, at the cost of care standards, staffing levels and in unfair and insufficient wages for Alberta workers.
During the pandemic, we have seen that the current model of care relies on making many vitally important staff work multiple, part-time jobs for low wages just to make ends meet.
It is not enough to clap for these heroes every day or to praise them with social media memes. We must change the system so that they and the patients for whom they care are no longer put at risk.
Problems in Vegreville have shone a spotlight on the problems.
We need look no further than the news this week from Vegreville for the most recent evidence that our current system has failed.
In April, a Ministerial Order was issued to prevent staff from working at multiple sites. This was seen as necessary to reduce the risk of workers spreading the virus from in facility to another.
The fact that this order has never been fully implemented all these weeks later is proof enough of the inadequacy or our current care model. But last week, an exemption was sought to the Ministerial Order for four care facilities in Vegreville.
Because the operators could not find enough staff.
It’s easy to draw a straight line the actions Optima Living, the private operator of Vegreville’s Century Park facility, in September 2019, to today’s crisis.
The employer decided to outsource most of its staffing and laid off 53 Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs), health-care aides (HCAs) and cooks.
Some were offered the chance to work for a new contractor, but were expected to do so for much lower wages, up to $8 per hour less for the same work.
Now, when the lives of these Vegreville patients and residents are at risk from the pandemic, facilities can’t find enough staff and the situation at Century Park is particularly dire.
What does this mean for the patients and residents?
It means they are to be exposed to extra risk of having workers at multiple sites, potentially at the cost of their lives.
This is just the most recent example.
As we have seen from the beginning of the pandemic, Alberta has failed its seniors and its workers.
Issues include access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE); the failure of the Alberta government and employers to implement the $2 per hour pay boost for HCAs in private facilities; the failure to include other vital workers in that pay boost, including LPNs, food-services and cleaning; and the failure to fully implement single-site employment.
It’s time to change.
It’s time to put politics aside. Albertans will welcome a unified continuing-care system, where they can rely on the standards of care and where they can be confident in the ability to withstand another crisis.
This should be our legacy, our lesson learned.
Some things are too important for scoring political points. Some things are too important for making profits.
Caring for our seniors is one of those things.