CALLANDER, Ont. — As is tradition, Mike Harris helped tee off the 23rd Annual Osprey Links Charity Golf Gala, Wednesday, and took a few minutes before heading out on the course to share his views on a few hot-button subjects, including the state of long-term care.
Harris is well-positioned to speak on the matter as he played a role in expanding long-term care privatization in the province during his political career and now serves as the Chair of the Board of Chartwell Retirement Residences, a for-profit chain of over 200 nursing and seniors' homes.
Asked whether the privatization model for long-term care should continue in light of the thousands of deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic Harris was quick to defend the private sector.
"If you actually analyze the facts honestly there's very little difference in any of them," between municipal, not-for-profit, and private facilities, Harris observed. "In fact, the private homes have a lot more to lose than the non-profits."
To date, the deaths of 3,793 long-term care residents in Ontario have been attributed to COVID-19.
During the first wave of the pandemic from March to August 2020, residents of long-term care and retirement homes accounted for more than 80 per cent of all reported national COVID-19 deaths.
This report from The Conversation includes a model that "predicts if all long-term care homes had been government-run, 1,348 residents would have died during the pandemic — less than half of the 3,790 long-term care deaths actually experienced. That same modelling predicts 4,977 deaths if all long-term care was for-profit, and 2,822 if all homes were non-profit."
The Ontario Health Coalition also released an analysis of long-term care deaths in the first months of the pandemic, finding elevated mortality rates in residents of for-profit long-term care facilities.
"It's been a challenge for all of us," Harris continued, "and I think governments, certainly around North America, and in Europe, as well, have made mistakes in how they treated long-term care homes with the emphasis on protecting hospitals.
"Hindsight's great to look at. Hopefully, we've learned lessons from all of this. I don't think the actual ownership structure is as big a challenge as was the number of older homes that hadn't been rebuilt and hadn't been modernized — both for-profit and not-for-profit — that's been the biggest challenge."
Dr. Vivian Stamatopoulos, a researcher and long-term care advocate says a pattern of resident neglect has emerged as privatization has spread.
"Before that, they were better staffed, predominantly by nursing staff. Over the last 20 years, when the for-profit model really gained dominance in Ontario, that's when we started to see an overhaul in the system," Stamatopoulos told Village Media in January.
The Toronto Star reported in December 2020 for-profit companies Extendicare, Sienna Senior Living, and Chartwell Retirement Residences paid out total dividends to their shareholders of over $170 million for the first three-quarters of that year while being concurrently subsidized for wages for their front-line workers through the Ontario government to the tune of $138.5 million.
Earlier this year, Harris was named to the Order of Ontario, a move that caused some controversy.
Asked if he favoured a set of national standards for long-term care delivery, Harris bristled at the suggestion.
"The federal government is always quick to say we'll have national standards — whether for daycare, for health care, for long-term care — but it's the flavour of the week and it makes good politics.
"Practically, it makes no sense because it's all provincial responsibility. It's easy to say. Are they going to put up the dollars to take over health care? I think it's more of a political statement than anything else."
This article was edited for clarity, Thursday, August 19.