Ontario's new minister of long-term care is taking a different approach from his predecessor, starting with an apology.
"I think that anyone who has read the long-term care commission report can't miss the clear conclusion: successive governments, including this one, failed residents, they failed families, and they failed our staff," said Rod Phillips, in his first press conference as minister of long-term care. "And on behalf of both past governments and the current government, I apologize for that. I think that's a necessary step, so that we can take the action we need to do now to move forward."
Philips took on the role in June's cabinet shuffle, returning from the backbenches after he left his post as finance minister following an ill-advised vacation to the Caribbean during the second wave of the pandemic.
On the same day he was sworn in, Phillips reached out to some of the seniors' advocates who had been ignored by the former minister, Merrilee Fullerton, who was moved into the children, community and social services portfolio.
Fullerton had never apologized for the crises that unfolded in long-term care homes across the province during the pandemic, resulting in the loss of nearly 4,000 lives and leaving thousands of other vulnerable seniors isolated and neglected. Instead, she blamed all of the sector's failings on the previous Liberal government, likening her own role to a hero rushing into a burning building to help and memorably telling the press, "We didn't start the fire."
Phillips, in contrast, said his government is in part to blame.
Asked to clarify what actions or failures of his government he was apologizing for, he pointed to the report of the independent commission into long-term care.
"Anyone who has read the commission's report sees, self-evident, that things could have been done better, and should have been done better," he said.
"First and foremost, there were 3,782 people who lost their lives in long-term care homes as a result of COVID," he said. "That's clearly not a standard, or something acceptable that this government or previous governments can be proud of."
Phillips didn't neglect to mention the previous government's failings, including leaving behind a system with outdated infrastructure and a flawed inspection regime.
He committed to fixing both.
He announced the government will table legislation to overhaul the Long-Term Care Homes Act in the fall, saying major changes will be made.
Part of that process will include changing the inspection and compliance regime for homes — one of the major complaints about Ontario's current regulatory framework is that even when serious violations of the law are identified, homes rarely face penalties of any consequence.
Asked about that concern, Phillips said it will be addressed as part of the policy overhaul.
"It needs to create the framework within which it's very clear to operators — whether they're for-profit, municipal, not-for-profit — what their obligations are and what the implications are, from an inspection perspective," he said. "We have been, for a variety of reasons, less proactive about inspections than we needed to be."
Phillips also spoke of the next steps to not only fix the system, but expand it rapidly as the population of seniors is growing along with the waitlist for beds in long-term care, which is now over 40,000 people long.
"We're going to have to run fast and run in the right direction and run smart," he said. "But the premier's made this commitment, and I'm making this commitment, that we will make the changes necessary."
That said, there are signs that the government's plans to expand and redevelop the sector are coming into conflict with advocates' demands for accountability for the operators responsible for the worst tragedies of the pandemic. For example, families who lost residents at the home and other advocates are planning a protest next month at Orchard Villa over its request for a 30-year licence extension from the government, which has already greenlit redevelopment plans that will add 87 beds to the home.
It was one of the hardest-hit homes during the pandemic, with 70 deaths. The Canadian Armed Forces were called in to stabilize the home during the first wave and reported horrendous details of neglect and substandard care. The Durham Regional Police Services is investigating complaints about the home and families have launched a civil case.
Phillips said it's too soon to say what actions the government will take to improve homes' compliance with the standards the government sets.
"It's important that we consult, that we speak directly to affected families, that we speak to residents, that we speak to the operators, that we speak to the representatives of the staff and their unions and have started those conversations, but we want to make sure that it's clear who has obligations and that will hold them accountable for ... those obligations," he said.
He also promised to make progress on getting more air conditioning into homes. Today, 60 per cent of the facilities have in-room air-conditioning and another 23 per cent are expected to imminently — the same figures reported by Fullerton a month ago. Phillips promised improvements and said he's asked for regular reports on the progress.
Phillips began his press conference by announcing the loosening of pandemic restrictions for long-term care residents.
As the province enters step two of the reopening on Wednesday, residents will be able to have outdoor visits of up to 10 people, and up to two general visitors and two caregivers for an indoor visit, with no limits on the number of essential caregivers that can be designated. Personal care services, such as visits from hairdressers, can resume and homes can relax the cohorting of residents outdoors.
When the province enters step three — currently set for three weeks after step two begins — the province will remove the limits on the number of visitors to the homes, permit buffet and family-style dining, allow all residents to go on absences regardless of immunization status, all the resumption of off-site excursions for residents and allow the resumption of activities such as singing and dancing.