TORONTO — Health-care advocates criticized the Ontario government Friday for not providing any funding details in the provincial budget for a major pledge to improve long-term care, saying the promise will require significant investment.
The Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario and the Canadian Union of Public Employees said they were troubled by the lack of financial detail on the commitment to provide nursing home residents with an average of four hours of daily direct care by 2024.
The groups stressed that the standard -- something advocates have been requesting for years -- will require hundreds of millions of dollars in annual funding.
"I'm astonished," Doris Grinspun, the CEO of the registered nurses' association said. "Why would you promise the four hours of care if you won't put meat on the bone. There is nothing there."
Premier Doug Ford has said the province will need to hire “tens of thousands” more personal support workers, registered practical nurses and registered nurses to achieve the standard, and noted as the budget was released Thursday that the government is "totally committed" to the promise.
A chorus of advocates and unions in the sector have called for a minimum four-hour standard of daily care for years. Those calls have intensified since the start of the pandemic as 2,050 long-term care residents have died of COVID-19.
Nursing home residents currently receive a daily average of two hours and 45 minutes of direct care.
Michael Hurley, regional vice-president for the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said the government's pledge is meaningless if it doesn't come with a detailed plan to hire thousands of workers.
"You have to have targets about the numbers of people that you were planning to recruit in each year, and a methodology for getting to that target," said Hurley, whose union represents workers in some nursing homes.
"We don't see any of those any of those things so far."
The union has estimated that providing the standard could cost the government $320 million a year over four years -- totaling more than $1.3 billion.
Vivian Stamatopoulos, an associate professor at Ontario Tech University specializing in family caregiving, said the lack of funding for the care standard is a disappointment.
Families with loved ones in long-term care are desperately looking for the government to take immediate action as the pandemic continues to have a deadly impact on nursing homes, she said.
"It's insulting to residents and their families, but it's unfortunately expected," she said. "For all the talk of fixing the broken system they inherited, the government continues to miss very important opportunities to do just that."
The CEO of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, however, praised the government's commitment to the new care standard.
"We look forward to working with them to create a workforce with thousands more skilled healthcare workers to serve our seniors," said Donna Duncan, whose group represents 70 per cent of long-term care operators in Ontario.
Earlier this month, the province's Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission said Ontario must spend more money, on a permanent basis, so nursing homes can hire more personal support workers and nurses.
The commission -- which is investigating how the novel coronavirus spread in the long-term care system -- also said the province should implement its own staffing plan released in July that recommended a minimum of four hours of direct care per resident per day.
The government said earlier this week that it has been developing the strategy to implement the care standard for some time.
On Thursday, Finance Minister Rod Phillips said the government was committed to the plan but it was too soon to provide funding details since it had only received the commission's recommendations two weeks prior.
"The financing will be there to support it," Phillips said. "But everybody would understand that we have to make sure that it's done in the right way and so that's going to take a lot of hard work."
On Friday, a spokeswoman for Phillips said the government will be releasing additional details in the coming months.
"The staffing strategy we release in December will be a critical piece of this work," Emily Hogeveen said in a statement. "Next steps will be highlighted in our spring budget."
Ontario's New Democrats have introduced four private members' bills, most recently last week, in a bid to secure the standard of care in nursing homes.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the budget provides few assurances that long-term care homes are getting needed funding to tackle the second wave.
“Doug Ford’s budget doesn’t take any new actions to make everyday people safer, or healthier, especially in long-term care,” she said in a statement.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published November 6, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press