Coalition claiming discrimination against Ontario's elderly

·6 min read

Health advocates across the province are calling on the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner to conduct a formal inquiry into the discrimination against the elderly in access to and levels of care in hospitals and long-term care homes.

As part of their campaign, the Ontario Health Coalition (OHC) partnered with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly and the Canadian Union of Public Employees to host a virtual press conference for Sudbury on Friday.

Sudbury has some of the highest rates of hospital overcrowding in the province, and the government’s “longstanding policies of de-hospitalization and rationing levels of care and access to long-term care” disproportionately harm Ontario’s elderly populations, said the OHC.

“We are calling on the Human Rights Commissioner to use its public inquiry powers under Section 31 of the Ontario Human Rights Code to investigate systemic discrimination based upon age against the elderly in the provision of healthcare in Ontario,” said Candace Rennick, secretary-treasurer at CUPE.

Although Ontario’s Long-Term Care COVID-19 Commission is already underway, health advocates believe the commission is intended to provide answers to a “relatively narrow set of questions.”

They believe that a broader systemic inquiry is urgently needed to examine the factors that led to these conditions in the first place.

“The commission’s particular expertise in relation to discrimination and equality rights, coupled with the inquiry powers afforded to it, make it ideally suited to carry out that inquiry,” said Adriel Weaver, a litigator at Goldblatt Partners.

“This problem of age-related discrimination and the provision of healthcare in the province will only grow and deepen as Ontario’s population ages. The commission has an important role to play in illuminating and addressing this pervasive and longstanding form of discrimination.”

Across Ontario, the waitlist for long-term care beds numbers between 20,000 and 38,000, and the OHC said the “hospital downsizing” the province has seen in the last three decades has been worse than any other province in Canada.

“In Sudbury, you have been particularly hard hit and have experienced the terrible problems that have come from that extreme downsizing,” said OHC executive director Natalie Mehra.

“These are policy choices. They have been cornerstone healthcare policies for more than two decades, and Ontario has funded our health care in the lowest tier of all the provinces.”

In the early months of the pandemic, she continued, 2,200 elderly people deemed alternate level of care (ALC) patients were offloaded from hospitals to make way for patients who were deemed “more important.”

“It happened in Sudbury where patients were offloaded to long-term care homes, retirement homes, as well as the 95 ALC patients who were offloaded to the Clarion Hotel,” she said.

“Thousands of seniors were left to die in long-term care homes, many with woefully inadequate care, many without family until the very end, if at all. It’s a cruel picture. That cruelty predates the pandemic.”

Further, there are 1,227 people in Sudbury on the waitlist for long-term care homes and waitlists can range up to 1,655 days. or four-and-a-half years.

Health Sciences North, she added, is chronically overcrowded, running at 100 per cent capacity or far above.

“That means that every bed is full, and patients are backlogged to the emergency department and there’s enormous pressure to move the elderly out of beds and move to wherever, whether it's safe or not,” said Mehra.

While the OHC has been lobbying the government for years, these policies remain in place, even as the pandemic makes it more difficult to ignore.

“How can it be that 4,000 elderly people were left to die in long-term care facilities? How could it be that so many of them were denied access to intensified nursing resources, to palliative care, to respirologists and pain specialists in a modern, developed economy? What kind of society have we become?” said Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospitals Union (a division of CUPE).

“Over the last 25 years, Ontario has closed more than 20,000 hospital beds, and over that period, the population has grown by more than 4.5 million, or more than 40 per cent. The population aged where we are now at the point where the number of people ages 65 and over had more than doubled. Yet, our province has the lowest number of hospital beds and staff to population anywhere in the country, and we have the second-lowest rate of long-term care capacity anywhere in Canada.”

Hurley that the discrimination prevalent in the provision of healthcare in the province serves to shorten the lifespan of many members of society.

“Ageism, rationing, and the infantilization of the elderly result in pain and suffering and the neglect of health-care conditions that would be dealt with urgently in a younger person. During this pandemic, this discrimination needlessly killed thousands in our direct care by denying them access to hospitalization, to preserve hospital beds and ICUs for younger Ontarians,” he said.

“This discrimination will get worse as the elderly population grows at a rapid pace and will do so for decades.”

Health advocates are asking the government to provide Ontarians with the hospital and long-term care they require free from discrimination based on age.

They also demand that the government prohibit the transfer of ALC patients awaiting hospital care to non-hospital facilities and ensure that ALC patients who are waiting for a placement in a long-term care home are not coerced to go into other facilities.

“Stop the privatization of public hospital care of the elderly. Issue a policy directive to long-term care homes requiring them to transfer residents to public hospitals where it is medically necessary and appropriate, subject to their right to informed consent, and prohibit the refusal of these transfers by hospitals,” said Hurley.

“Restore the capacity needed to meet the demographic healthcare challenges we face in the short term by reopening and staffing closed beds, building 50,000 public non-profit long-term care beds, and hiring 34,000 full-time equivalent long-term care staff and fast-tracking that hiring, where possible, and providing emergency aid and funding to public hospitals.”

Health advocates are also asking the federal government to increase funding to the healthcare sector while strengthening and enforcing national standards of care.

“The declining federal contribution is an active contributor to the discrimination we addressed today by virtue of its refusal to accept the funding implications of an aging population,” said Hurley.

Anyone who wants to support this initiative was encouraged to send their own letters to the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner and Premier Doug Ford.

“We are trying to mount as much political pressure as possible to get the government to move on these issues immediately. We can’t wait for an inquiry to improve the levels and access to care,” said Mehar.

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Twitter: @SudburyStar

Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star