Advocates for the elderly claim years of systemic ageism in health policies have contributed to long-term care residents dying of COVID-19 — now they are seeking an Ontario human rights inquiry into the matter.
The Ontario Health Coalition (OHC), the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE), and the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly (ACE) are calling for a public inquiry on human rights discrimination against the elderly when it come to access to — and levels of — care in hospitals and long-term care.
"There is responsibility to be borne at the facility level, no question," said Natalie Mehra, Director of the OHC. "But, there is also systemic ageism in our health system that treats the elderly as though their lives are less meaningful, and as though their right to care is lesser."
A human rights inquiry into Ontario’s systematic discrimination against the elderly in access to health care is long overdue say the OHC, OCHU/CUPE, and ACE in a letter to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
The advocates have also urged the provincial government to immediately ensure everyone gets the hospital and long-term care they need free from discrimination based on age. They also called for a stop to the transfer of ALC hospital patients to non-hospital facilities.
According to OHC data, in North Bay alone wait times for long-term care homes range up to 2,234 days or 6.1 years. The OHC maintains an average of only 12 people move into LTC each month and there are currently 598 people on the wait-list.
"In the pandemic, we saw, to our horror, the worst mass-casualty event in our long-term care history," Mehra observed during a media conference, Friday. "And, many of those deaths, in our view, were avoidable. The policies of denying access to hospital care for the elderly were instrumental. So, too, was the longstanding and terrible inadequacy of care in long-term care."
The advocates maintain these factors contributed to nearly 4,000 long-term care residents dying from COVID-19 in the last year across the province.
OCHU President Michael Hurley said over the last three decades, as the population was growing by 4.5 million and aging, Ontario governments have pursued the most radical hospital downsizing of any province in Canada cutting 20,000 hospital beds. In North Bay, hundreds of hospital beds have been eliminated. At the same time, the province rationed access to long-term care resulting in a wait-list of more than 38,000 mostly elderly Ontarians.
The group reports the North Bay Regional Health Centre is "chronically overcrowded, routinely running over 100 per cent capacity or higher. Patients are crowded into emergency rooms, creating enormous pressure for the elderly to be transferred out to wherever they can find a space, regardless of the safety and appropriateness of their care."
Across Ontario, more than 2,200 mostly elderly people — deemed alternate level of care (ALC) patients, and "often derisively referred to as bed blockers were offloaded from hospitals into makeshift sites. These patients who may have multiple complex chronic medical conditions, are moved to non-hospital sites and in some cases hotels, where staffing levels and care are lower," adds Hurley.
Across the province, only a small percentage of long-term care residents with COVID-19 were hospitalized prior to their deaths. A recent study found that only 22.4 per cent of long-term care residents who died with COVID-19 were hospitalized. This compares to 81.4 per cent of people with COVID-19 who lived in the community.
"The culture of hospital diversion for long-term care residents carried through the first wave and second wave. The older the resident, the lower the rate of hospitalization," said Mehra, who called the failure to provide access to needed care for the elderly the cruel result of these long-standing discriminatory policies.
"COVID-19 has shone a harsh light on Ontario health care’s systemic ageism in the treatment of the elderly. Four-bed ward rooms, understaffing, lack of PPE, failure to hospitalize residents. But the policy choices that got us here are decades-old and must stop," said the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly 's Meadus.