The Ontario government has delayed the release of documents to the independent commission on COVID-19 and long-term care, impeding and negatively impacting its work, a spokesman told QP Briefing.
The province struck the commission at the end of July and gave it just nine months to investigate and report on "how COVID-19 spread within long-term care homes, how residents, staff, and families were impacted, and the adequacy of measures taken by the province and other parties to prevent, isolate and contain the virus," and to provide guidance for the future.
"I want to get down to the bottom of this," Premier Doug Ford said at the time. "I need answers, I want answers"
In response to a question from QP Briefing, the commission's spokesman confirmed the release of documents has been a problem.
“As referenced on the transcripts, there has been a delay in the production of documents by the government to the commission," he said in an email. "At present, there are several long-standing requests involving significant volumes of documents that have yet to be provided. The delay in providing the documents is impeding the commission in its work.
"While awaiting the documents, the commission has utilized its time effectively, including the issuance of an interim report. The delay in providing documents negatively impacts the content and delivery of the final report.“
QP Briefing has reached out to Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton's office for her response.
Fullerton established the commission with terms of reference that include the power to summon documents relevant to the investigation "in order to fulfil their mandate in a timely manner."
The document that elicited the comment from Marrocco is a not-yet-public report on the province's former personal support worker registry, completed in early 2020 but not yet publicly released.
The previous Liberal government launched a pilot project through the University Health Network's Michener Institute to establish the registry, which was intended to aid in better human resource planning and boost the professional standards of the care workers.
The registry has since been closed. Marnie Weber, executive director of strategic developments at University Health Network, walked the commission through the reasons why it was flawed. She told Marrocco she had asked the government if she could share a copy of the report with the commissioners but was told they should request it directly from the ministry.
The issue is of importance to the commission because the staffing crisis in long-term care has been exacerbated by the fact that personal support workers are not registered or regulated.
The Ford government has promised to release a staffing strategy for long-term care next month.
Over the past four months, the commission has held meetings with medical experts, bureaucrats, long-term care residents and their families, long-term care operators and workers' unions and associations. At the commission's request, the ministry recently amended the terms of reference so that witnesses who may be afraid of reprisal for their comments can testify confidentially. The spokesperson said the commission anticipates using the confidentiality provision in the near future.
When informed of the commission's struggle with delayed documents, the first witness to testify emphasized the importance of its work.
"I have been impressed with their questions, and how their interim report demonstrates that they are coming to understand exactly how and why we got into the situation we have found ourselves in and more importantly what it will take for this to never happen again," said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at the Mount Sinai and University Health Network Hospitals in Toronto, who said he testified for 3.5 hours over two sessions.
"I can’t comprehend why the commission would be facing any issue in getting the documents they need," he said. "It was established sooner than intended to help quickly get the answers the government says it wants to know. So it doesn’t make any sense why the government would try and stifle its own commission."
Update: After publication of this story, Minister Fullerton's office issued a statement to QP Briefing: “Our government struck this Commission so that residents, families, and staff could get answers quickly, and we are committed to ensuring the integrity of, and public trust in, the independent review of our long-term care sector," it said. "Ministry officials are working as quickly as they can to get the Commission the documents they have requested. As of October 31st, the Ministry has already produced over 5,000 documents. We recognize the importance of the Commission’s work and want to ensure they are provided with the information they require.”
This article was also updated to clarify that Dr. Sinha's testimony was split between two sessions.