By Zaid Noorsumar
On March 27, the Ontario government announced an emergency order making “sweeping changes” to staffing, training, and reporting requirements in the province’s long-term care homes. The order was issued in response to COVID-19’s disastrous impact in the sector. As of April 1, 29 deaths in Ontario nursing homes have been linked to COVID-19.
The changes have been denounced by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Unifor and long-term care advocacy groups, but lauded by the Ontario Long-Term Care Association (OLTCA) and AdvantAge Ontario. The OLTCA mainly represents for-profit long-term care homes in the province while AdvantAge represents non-profits, charitable and municipal homes.
Only three days before the emergency order, a former senior staffer in Doug Ford’s government, Andrew Brander, registered as a lobbyist representing the Ontario Long-Term Care Association.
Andrew Brander has been working for the lobbying firm Crestview Strategy – hired by OLTCA – ever since he left the Ford government in July 2019. Brander served as the director of communications for finance minister Rod Phillips in the Ford government and also worked for a decade in the Harper administration.
Brander’s goals on the Ontario Lobbyist Registry are specified as, “Raising awareness of the opportunities and challenges related to long-term care development and redevelopment in the province with the objective of ensuring timely, quality senior’s care and ending hallway health care.”
Brander’s transition from the Ontario PCs to for-profit LTC lobbyist is the latest in a well-established pattern that goes all the way up to former Ontario premier Mike Harris.
While there is no evidence to support a direct relationship between Brander’s appointment and the emergency order, union officials say the changes are in line with the for-profit operators’ long-standing demands in the sector.
Brander did not answer Rankandfile.ca’s request for comment.
Controversial emergency order
The Ontario government told the Toronto Star its emergency order was necessitated by “extraordinary times”. It also said the measure was temporary for two weeks. Jane Meadus, a lawyer for the Advocacy Center for the Elderly told the Toronto Star that the new rules would be disastrous.
Aside from giving employers leeway on reporting obligations, the emergency order allows long-term care homes to hire any staff they deem fit for a particular role. In essence, employers can shift duties from staff with higher qualifications to less-qualified staff in order to save money.
Kathy Fortier of the union Unifor says these changes align with long-standing demands advocated by for-profit operators.
Lisa Levin, CEO of AdvantAge Ontario, said she would never support such an emergency order in normal times but these measures would serve a useful purpose at this juncture.
“There’s a lot of staff that are off because they are sick or in self-isolation or [because of inaccessible] child care,” she said. “This will allow greater flexibility so homes can bring in staff to help with things like answering telephones or helping to assist residents at mealtimes, and pushing wheelchairs and things like that.”
However, Fortier said employers should ensure that part-time and casual workers are assigned full-time hours to have enough hands on deck. She said Unifor had proposed this to employers it deals with in the sector and a handful had agreed.
“We’ve given the Minister of Long-Term Care, Merrilee Fullerton, concrete suggestions on how they could actually attract qualified personal support workers who have left the industry to come back,” said Fortier.
The OLTCA and the Ministry of Long-Term Care did not respond to Rankandfile.ca’s requests for comment.
Staffing shortages and the profit connection
As the Toronto Star reported, staffing issues are worsening conditions for residents due to COVID-19. However, the staffing shortage crisis existed long before the pandemic due to years of underfunding and privatization.
“The biggest issue is that there isn’t enough staff,” Levin said. “The governments haven’t increased staffing levels over the years. But the people in the home are much sicker than they were before. And so you have a much different population in long term care, but the same number of staff, and that’s what the problem is.”
Staffing levels are also related to ownership. In Ontario, 58 percent of homes are for-profit. But many long-term care corporations also generate revenue through the management of municipal and non-profit homes.
Researchers report that companies profit from reduced staffing levels because the biggest expense in long-term care homes is labour. For-profit homes tend to have lower staffing levels than non-profit and municipal homes and thereby deliver a poorer quality of care.
According to the lobbyist registry, the OLTCA has received over $7 million in funding from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care in the last fiscal year. The year before, the funding was $2.6 million. The purpose of the funding isn’t clear and neither the OLTCA nor the ministry offered an explanation.
Tories and the for-profit LTC lobby
Andrew Brander is not the only person with ties to both the Ontario PCs and the for-profit lobby. Donna Duncan, CEO of the OLTCA, previously served as a policy director for the Ontario PC leader John Tory in 2006-07.
Caressant Care, which owns 15 nursing homes in Ontario, has Christopher Chapin as a lobbyist. Chapin served in numerous senior positions for the PCs, including a digital communications role in Christine Elliott’s leadership campaign in 2015. Elliott is now Doug Ford’s health minister.
Caressant Care also utilizes the services of Patrick Tuns, who served as the deputy campaign manager for both Doug Ford’s leadership race and the Ontario PC’s 2018 election campaign.
Leslie Noble, another lobbyist for OLTCA, has been involved with the federal Conservative Party and was previously a campaign manager for Ontario Premier Mike Harris.
Mike Harris himself is currently chair of the Board of Directors for Chartwell, one of the major corporations in the long-term care and retirement homes sector. His son, Mike Harris Jr., is currently serving as an MPP in Ford’s government. Just this past week, the Alberta Union of Public Employees reported Chartwell laying off workers at one of their Alberta homes.
Paul Brown, former Mulroney advisor on privatization of Crown corporations, is now a registered lobbyist for Extendicare. Extendicare, which owns 92 homes across four provinces in Canada, was recently in the news for the neglectful death of a 79-year old woman at one of its homes in Alberta. In 2014, Extendicare was fined $38 million by the United States Justice Department for providing “effectively worthless” care to residents.
Carly Luis, who also lobbies on behalf of OLTCA, has previously served as the director of strategic communications for the Ontario PCs.
In addition to canny lobbying tactics, the for-profit lobby also makes large political donations. As Rankandfile.ca has previously reported, the for-profit lobby donated $666,857 between 2007 and 2018 to Ontario’s political parties with the vast majority of money going to Liberals and Progressive Conservatives.