The commission investigating long-term care in Ontario has not yet decided if it will hold public hearings, a spokesperson told QP Briefing Tuesday.
That contradicted assurances offered by Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton the same day.
"So certainly, there will be public hearings, there is a public report," she said at a press conference. "All of this is to be transparent. And I certainly have confidence in the commissioners to do exactly that. These are extremely skilled and credible people. And the process is intended to create transparency we need to maintain trust with Ontarians."
Fullerton had been asked for an update on the commission's progress and she noted that it is independent of her ministry — which is true. And while the commission's terms of reference, set by her ministry, allow it to hold public hearings, they don't require it to.
According to the director of communications for the commission, a decision on that has not yet been made. Peter Rehak also said stakeholders and interested parties can contact the commission to send comments and proposals, and some already have.
The commissioners have begun their investigation behind closed doors.
"They, along with commission staff, are receiving foundational briefings and information from experts and professionals in long-term care, public health, and health human resources, as well as senior government officials responsible for pandemic planning and the oversight of long-term care homes," a statement published to the commission's website Tuesday says.
Those interviews include top ministry staff.
"I know my deputy minister has already been through hours of interviews," said Fullerton. "I have not as yet. But I certainly anticipate that that that will happen. And I'd be very happy to be part of that."
Fullerton was also asked why the commission has been low-profile, with the existence of its website not widely known.
"I think it probably depends on public interest," Fullerton replied, adding that it took time for the commission to get established and staffed up. "I'm sure we will be hearing from them in due course."
The possibility that there won't be public hearings was upsetting to one patient advocate and expert.
Vivian Stamatopoulos, a researcher at OntarioTech whose work focuses on caregivers, called it "so offensive" that people who have firsthand knowledge have been ignored so far and may never have the chance to speak at a public hearing.
"We're frankly the groups that need to be consulted — families, residents and front-line staff — and we need to know how we can get involved in this process," she said.
She was also critical of the minister for her mistaken assurance that there would be public hearings, saying, "I think it's been very clear from day one that Minister Fullerton has been confused on a lot of things in long-term care."
Fullerton's office later clarified her statement, saying she "meant that the commission has the ability to hold public hearings/meetings."
The NDP has been calling for more transparency from the commission and wrote a letter asking for clarification on if there will be a process that would grant families health-care standing or otherwise allow them to participate, if there will be funding to give them legal counsel, and if there will be details forthcoming on the process and public hearings.
"Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario, we have heard from thousands of families who shared their deep concerns for their loved ones residing in long-term care homes," Horwath wrote. "They have invaluable insights which should be part of any comprehensive review of the failure of our long-term care system. So far, the details of the commission’s process have not been transparent."
The commission's Tuesday statement said it will be seeking out information on first-hand experiences.
"The commissioners see one of the commission’s most important goals as understanding the experience of residents and families over the course of the pandemic and will be integrating those perspectives into every aspect of their work," it says. "The commission has been considering how best to receive information from these key stakeholders, and will begin seeking input from them in the coming weeks."
"Finally, the commissioners are mindful of the continuing public health crisis and intend to conduct their investigation in a manner that minimizes interference with the work required to combat the pandemic."