Miramichi MLA says nursing homes should not be privatized, regardless of savings

·6 min read
Miramichi MLA Michelle Conroy of the People's Alliance says nursing home care should never be privatized. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Miramichi MLA Michelle Conroy of the People's Alliance says nursing home care should never be privatized. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

People's Alliance MLA Michelle Conroy doesn't care how much money the government saved by partnering with a private company to build two new nursing homes in Miramichi.

"I really could care less about the almighty dollar," said Conroy, who represents the Miramichi riding.

"It's not worth it. The care of the seniors should be of the utmost importance."

Conroy said seniors' care should not be privatized.

"From what I have seen in the last couple of years, I don't believe it is the way to go at all."

It was one of the issues that Auditor General Kim Adair-MacPherson raised last week when she released her report. She said the province should do a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether public-private partnerships are more economical than the traditional non-profit model.

Liberal MLA Lisa Harris stands behind the decision to partner with Shannex to build two new nursing homes in Miramichi.
Liberal MLA Lisa Harris stands behind the decision to partner with Shannex to build two new nursing homes in Miramichi.

That issue also surfaced in her 2016 report as a recommendation after the province entered into an agreement in 2008 to open 216 new nursing home beds.

Last week, Adair-MacPherson said the province still hasn't done it.

Social Development Minister Bruce Fitch said the analysis has been done, although maybe "not in the way the A.G. wanted it done."

Nor, he said, is the answer as clear-cut as she might have wanted.

Fitch said there are too many factors at play to decide on one approach for every project in the future.

Liberal MLA Lisa Harris, who represents Miramichi Bay-Neguac, was the minister responsible for seniors and long-term care in September 2017when the province signed an e agreement with Shannex to build 240 beds in Miramichi.

She stands behind the decision to partner with Shannex.

Harris

This chart prepared by the auditor general shows the proportion of New Brunswick's population 75 and over. The number is expected to double in the next 20 years.
This chart prepared by the auditor general shows the proportion of New Brunswick's population 75 and over. The number is expected to double in the next 20 years.

"At the time, it was the way to go, and I still believe that it's a good model," said Harris.

In her report, Adair-MacPherson said the decision "was supported by an analysis completed by the Department of Finance and Treasury Board."

Harris said, "From the data that we had, it was the best option and the most efficient option for the taxpayer."

For a cash-strapped province desperate for more nursing home beds, "we're able to build more nursing homes without coming up with millions of dollars of capital money."

While the Department of Social Development declined to provide details about the 2017 agreement to build the new facilities in Miramichi, Shannex did respond to some questions.

"The construction of our Miramichi communities was fully funded by Shannex," said Isabelle Landry, a senior communications manager with the company.

She declined, however, to reveal the total cost of the project.

2 new homes, 28 additional beds

Harris doesn't like the idea of coming up with a set approach to building new nursing homes.

She said it makes more sense to look at individual projects on a case-by-case basis rather than try to develop a default approach.

"You always have to look at all options," she said.

In that deal, Shannex built two new homes — Losier Hall, which opened in October 2019 with 159 beds, and Bridgeview Hall, which opened in June 2020 with 81 beds — and increased the number of beds in the area by 28.

Between 2009 and 2017, plans alternated between fixing up the two aging homes and replacing them, which ended up costing the government millions of additional dollars.

This exhibit prepared by the Auditor General shows the distribution of private and non-profit nursing home beds by region as of March 31, 2020.
This exhibit prepared by the Auditor General shows the distribution of private and non-profit nursing home beds by region as of March 31, 2020.

According to the auditor general's report, by the time the two new homes opened, the province had already spent more than $11 million "in repairs and financial assistance" for Mount St. Joseph, a facility owned by Catholic Health International.

Despite all of that government money, the facility was later abandoned.

Harris insists that it was money well spent. Although all of the Mount's residents moved out, the building is being re-purposed as a home for people with dementia. Roughly half of the facility's so-called memory-care beds are now filled.

Officials with Mount St. Joseph did not respond to a request for information.

Quality of care

Harris supports the auditor general's call for an in-depth look at the quality of care being provided by the province's long-term care homes, "regardless if it's a private home or not."

Adair-MacPherson said her department had planned to look at the quality of care being delivered to nursing homes, but that was sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once restrictions ease, she said, it will "conduct a future audit at the Department of Social Development focusing on this aspect."

Conroy said many community members were against the deal from the beginning.

And, she said, their initial concerns have materialized.

An exhibit prepared by the auditor general shows the number of nursing home beds by region from March 2015 to March 2020.
An exhibit prepared by the auditor general shows the number of nursing home beds by region from March 2015 to March 2020.

She said she's talked with residents and staff who moved from "the Mount," as it's known locally, to the new facilities.

While staffing was always a concern, Conroy said workers are "stretched thin," and residents are often left waiting far too long for someone to respond when they ring the bell for service — and many simply don't ring the bell because they don't want to be a burden.

She said the testimonials from residents and staff are a lot more powerful than any cost-benefit study could ever be.

"No company is going to do this … and not want to profit from it," said Conroy. "Senior care should not be privatized."

60 new beds announced

In her report, Adair-MacPherson said the government is failing to keep up with the demand for nursing home beds. She said the waiting list continues to grow and the plan to increase beds is about two years behind schedule.

On Thursday, the government announced that it would build a 60-bed home on the Acadian Peninsula.

A news release about the calls for proposals said the project is part of Phase 2 of the province's 2018-2023 nursing home plan, which addresses two primary issues: aging infrastructure and the need for additional beds. The plan includes the construction of more than 1,000 new beds, including both nursing home and memory care beds.

"This government is committed to providing the right kind of care at the right time," said Fitch. "The development of this project is a priority to address the need for nursing home beds in the area."

Construction of the new nursing home could begin as early as this fall and open in 2023.

There are currently 70 licensed nursing homes across the province, and they contain a total of 4,925 beds.