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Feds silent on enforcement as national long-term care standards get final ‘tweaks’

Questions remain about what the federal government intends to do once they’re finished
Residents are shown at Idola Saint-Jean long-term care home in Laval, Que., on February 25, 2022. A think tank that’s been compiling data on COVID-19 in Canadian long-term care homes says it has to stop its work because provinces are no longer making enough information public about the spread of the virus in the sector. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Jane Sustrik remembers the sense of fear hanging over her in those early months of the pandemic.

Dozens of residents from her mother’s congregate living home in Edmonton died of COVID-19, as Sustrik read reports of the abysmal conditions in long-term care homes across the country and the number of residents falling victim to the virus.

Sustrik was vice-president of United Nurses of Alberta before leaving her job to be a full-time caregiver to her mom in the congregate home. That was just before COVID-19 hit.

At the time she remembers saying, “My greatest fear is that we’re not going to learn anything from this.”

“I feel now that we’ve learned a lot from COVID,” Sustrik said in a recent interview. “But we haven’t done anything with it.”

Teams of experts have been working since last year to put together national long-term care standards to reflect those hard-earned pandemic lessons and offer Canadians better and safer lives in congregate homes.

They’re now putting the finishing touches on two sets of standards, but the question remains what the federal government intends to do once they’re finished.

The Health Standards Organization and the CSA Group — formerly the Canadian Standards Association — are expected to approve the final version of the standards in a matter of weeks and they will be publicly released in December.

Dr. Samir Sinha, who chairs the HSO’s panel of experts on long-term care, said he’s spoken to the federal ministers on the file who’ve expressed enthusiasm about the work so far but won’t commit to mandating the standards until they are finalized.

The Liberals promised to legislate safety in long-term care during the last election, and that promise is a condition of the party’s supply and confidence agreement with the NDP to prevent an election before 2025.

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos’ office referred questions about the government’s promise to Health Canada, which would not say whether the government plans to table legislation in the House of Commons this fall.

“We want to see action on this immediately,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh at a news conference Thursday. “We need to see that standard of care be legislated and we want to see that implemented as quick as possible.”

The agreement between the two parties doesn’t include a timeline for the new legislation, or any specifics about what it should contain.

Sustrik said better standards are needed immediately. People have already become complacent about long-term care conditions, even as outbreaks continue in the homes, she said.

“We’re back to where we were before again,” she said. “I feel like nothing’s happened. So if we could get some decent standards in long-term care, it’s absolutely vital.”

The government set aside $3 billion in the 2021 budget to help provinces and territories implement the standards when they are complete, and Health Canada said in a statement any legislation will be designed to reflect the provinces’ jurisdiction over the industry.

Sinha and CSA Group’s committee chair Alex Mihailidis say the standards will be very similar to the drafts released earlier this year, with some minor “tweaks.”

The standards focus on every aspect of life in long-term care, from infection control and prevention, to staff working conditions, food and visitor policies.

CSA Group received 2,000 pieces of feedback on the draft after it was released at the beginning of the year, Mihailidis said, and most reinforced the approach the committee was already taking.

He believes the standards will help to curb transmission of COVID-19 and other disease outbreaks.

“I think there could be a difference down the road, obviously if and when the standard is implemented,” he said.

– Laura Osman, The Canadian Press