The Ontario government is considering renewing the licence for a for-profit long-term care home that saw one of the worst outbreaks in the province and was the subject of a scathing military report in 2020.
The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care held a public hearing on July 15 on a new 30-year licence and expansion to the Orchard Villa, a Pickering, Ont., home run by Southbridge Care Homes.
Advocacy groups are now calling for changes to the hearings, saying that the voices of families and advocates are being ignored. They said the consultation process has focused on whether Southbridge is capable of building a home and whether beds are needed, but not the history of the company or its ability to care for residents.
"It's unbelievable that this is even happening. It's an outrage to us, and the families, and we're calling on the government to stop it," said Natalie Mehra, the executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, at a virtual news conference held on Tuesday morning.
Southbridge Care Homes owns 37 long-term care and retirement homes across the province. The 230-bed Orchard Villa home saw the deaths of 70 residents during the first wave of the pandemic.
CBC News reached out to Southbridge Care Homes on Tuesday morning but did not receive a response.
In a statement sent to CBC Toronto, the Ministry of Long-Term Care said it had received an application for a licence from the company and that licensing proposals are regulated by the Long-Term Care Homes Act, which includes public consultations. The consultations for Southbridge's application closed on July 25, 2021.
"At this time, the Director has not made a decision regarding the issuance of a licence to Southbridge and every consideration will be examined thoroughly," said ministry spokesperson Mark Nesbitt.
Open letter asks for extended deadline on consultations
Meanwhile, the Ontario Health Coalition sent an open letter to Minister of Long-Term Care Rod Phillips on Tuesday asking him to extend the deadline for the decision and change the government's criteria for granting a new licence.
"We can't really believe that it's even a question whether Southbridge would get a new licence to operate this home and an expansion. Really, they should have been fined, they should have lost their licence, they should have faced severe penalties for what happened in that home," Mehra said.
Cathy Parkes, a Toronto resident and family advocate, lost her father Paul Parkes to the novel coronavirus at the Orchard Villa long-term care facility.
"If we're talking about a 30-year licence of care, we have to talk about the history," she said. "This is a home that was hit the hardest in wave one, had the highest death rate in Ontario during the pandemic, and even prior to the pandemic was receiving multiple incident reports with everything — staffing issues, medication issues."
Parkes is a member of Canadians 4 LTC and Families of Orchard Villa, two groups pushing for changes to long-term care.
She said she struggled to have her father cared for at a basic level at Orchard Villa even before the pandemic, and that when he was infected with COVID-19, she was prevented from seeing him other than through a window and staff told her that they weren't allowed to take him to a hospital.
"He died alone, which was his biggest fear," she said. "I was begging to be let in and I was blocked from doing that. He really suffered, probably in the last month."
"Even now, I can't think about it too much. He was just let down by the people who were there to take care of him, and it breaks my heart."
Orchard Villa was subject of a 2020 military report
Canadian Armed Forces members were deployed to intervene at five care homes in April 2020, including at Orchard Villa in Pickering. The military later released a scathing report saying that its members had observed lack of hygiene, dangerous behaviour and poor infection control at the homes.
The report found there was a lack of cleanliness at Orchard Villa, with cockroaches and flies present, a rotten food smell in a hallway near a resident's room, and many old food trays stacked inside a bedside table.
At the time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the report was "deeply disturbing," and Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the report was "horrifying" and that "there's going to be justice."
But some homes continue to be cited by provincial inspectors for serious violations of Ontario's Long-Term Care Act despite promises made by politicians to reform the sector after the pandemic.
Homes need to restore trust, says geriatrician
A recent Angus Reid poll found that half of Canadians said they would do everything in their power to avoid entering long-term care and to keep close family members out.
It also found that three-quarters of Canadians surveyed said either significant change or a total overhaul was needed, although only three in ten expected any change to happen.
Samir Sinha, the director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai and the University Health Network Hospitals, said while the crisis in long-term care homes is largely over, it has changed the way that many Canadians think about the system.
"What has not left Canadians' minds is that over 15,000 people died in these settings, including 30 staff as well, and that many Canadians have lost their trust in these long-term care systems," he said.
"To restore that trust, we're going to have to make sure we're adequately funding that part of our healthcare system, better integrate it, make sure that we're actually supporting staff that are working in these settings and actually have enforceable standards."