The company that owns the Orchard Villa long-term care home says its redevelopment projects are more likely to go ahead now that the government has committed to increasing the funding it pays to build and upgrade long-term homes.
Southbridge Care Homes has five redevelopment projects approved by the province and two more applications pending — among those is Orchard Villa, a home where the Canadian Armed Forces report described horrific conditions and 78 residents died.
"What this announcement has done is it's actually made it more feasible for us to hit the ground running," said Candace Chartier, the former head of the Ontario Long-Term Care Home Association, who was recently appointed the chief seniors’ advocate and strategic partnerships officer at Southbridge Care Homes.
Before the government committed to increasing the funding, and adding more upfront funding, the company was only "optimistic" those projects would have moved forward but — "now we're just chomping at the bit to sit down with government because this just opens the door for so much future sustainability," said Chartier.
The privately held company owns 27 long-term care homes in Ontario and almost all of them, like Orchard Villa, are older homes that need to be upgraded.
Recent research found that residents of Ontario's old long-term care homes — where more residents are more crowded and many live in four-bed ward rooms that aren't allowed under modern design standards — were twice as likely to contract COVID-19 and die than those in less crowded homes.
That reality was acknowledged by the provincial government and Chartier as well, pointing to the four-bed shared rooms and large shared dining rooms common in old homes as particular problems.
"It's so hard to deal with infection prevention and control on a daily basis in a new home — imagine the struggles in an older home where you have that more focused congregate living and design standards from 1972 where you might have wooden handrails," she said, adding that the government's changes to the redevelopment program will stop the same devastating impact from being repeated.
Southbridge's new eagerness to take part in the redevelopment program was the point — Premier Doug Ford and Long-Term Care Minister Merrillee Fullerton have said it will kick-start capital development in the long-term care sector that had stalled under the previous government.
The Ford government didn't overhaul the long-term care development program — it just sweetened the pot, and made it retroactive to include projects already approved.
In 2019, the government earmarked $1.75 billion over five years to build 15,000 new beds and redevelop 15,000 more in that time. But this week's announcement means that money will now only go to 8,000 new beds and 12,000 redeveloped beds, all of which are at some stage of development, according to the Ministry of Long-Term Care.
"As we speak, 128 projects are at various stages of readiness in Ontario, representing over 8,000 new long-term care beds and 12,000 beds to be redeveloped," it said in a statement. "Each one of these projects will now be eligible for tailored support to get underway faster."
The ministry said those 128 projects are "at various stages along the [approvals] pipeline" and refused to release a list of those projects.
Government sources confirmed to CTV that the allocation of the beds isn't new — the funding mostly applies to projects allocated by the previous Liberal government that had not yet been built. "Of the 7,889 new beds Ford promised to build, roughly 6,000 were allocated by the Wynne government in 2017 and 2018, and the remainder was allocated by the Ford government in 2018 and 2019," the broadcaster reported.
Prior to the announcement, development had stalled. The Ford government slammed the Liberals for that — highlighting that only 611 additional beds were built between 2011 and 2018.
Since then, only nine additional beds, and 169 redeveloped beds, have been built under the Ford government's tenure, according to the ministry.
"We know that on average, it has historically taken 36 months for projects to be finished and ready to welcome residents. Projects completed since June 2018, therefore, reflect the previous government’s clear failure to support long-term care," said press secretary Gillian Sloggett. "This is exactly why we had to make this change to the funding model, so we can make up for lost runway and get badly-needed capacity built."
The Liberals shot back that their government built 14,560 new long-term beds and redeveloped an additional 15,712 beds since 2003 — but the Ford government countered that many beds went off-line at the same time, resulting in a far smaller increase to the overall capacity of the long-term care system.
(This story was updated after publication to say the ministry refused to release the list of projects eligible to receive the funds.)