Nova Scotia Progressive Conservation leader Tim Houston speaking to reporters about his party’s long term care plan outside Melville Heights on Wednesday afternoon. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston held an outdoor news conference in front of the Melville Heights seniors’ home in Halifax today. Houston is promising to Nova Scotians that if they elect his party to form the next government, he will create 2,500 single rooms in nursing homes over the next three years. About 435 rooms would be new and the rest would be created by converting shared rooms and renovating existing space. The estimated price tag is $465.8 million dollars.

Houston has written Prime Minister Trudeau asking for a share of infrastructure money that could boost the number of new single rooms in nursing homes even higher — creating 3,500 rooms — if the federal government agrees to match provincial funds for a total $821 million investment.

“COVID-19 has shone a light on the importance of single rooms for long-term care residents,” said Houston, “particularly in relation to infection control and slowing the spread of illness within a facility. The funding appears to be there federally. We should be doing everything within our power to capitalize on this opportunity.”

Fifty-three residents of Northwood Manor and Northwood Centre died from COVID-related illnesses when the virus swept through the 485-bed facility. Residents were double- and even triple-bunked in the home built in the 1960s. Requests for capital funding to create more single rooms had been made to the McNeil government since 2017.

Asked if the province could afford to spend $465 million at this time, Houston, an accountant by profession, answered: “It’s an investment in people that’s overdue. Stephen McNeil can’t ignore it anymore. Seniors deserve our respect and dignity.”

There are currently 7,000 beds and about 1,450 people waiting for a nursing home placement in Nova Scotia. The latter figure has grown by several hundred since March because the Department of Health is allowing older nursing home buildings to keep some beds vacant to help with infection control in the event of a second wave of COVID or influenza.

Houston says the new beds the PCs are proposing will take care of the current waiting list but won’t go far enough to meet the eventual need of up to 20,000 baby boomers 10 years from now.

PCs would hire more staff

The letter was written July 23 and the prime minister has not yet responded. Adding more beds is part of a three-pronged commitment Houston made to seniors during today’s election-style announcement. Houston is also promising to hire more staff for nursing homes — as many as 2,000 more “health care professionals” — to provide 4.1 hours of care a day to nursing home residents. This will require a change to the Homes for Special Care Act and it is the standard of care for which the Nova Scotia Nurses Union has been advocating since 2015.

The Expert Panel on Long-Term Care refused to endorse it, in part because nursing home managers say there aren’t enough trained Continuing Care Assistants (CCAs) and nurses in the province available to provide it.

Houston acknowledged that a shortage of trained workers is a problem and said that’s why his party will reinstate a training grant to help CCAs with their education, will resume on-site training programs within long-term care facilities, and “establish workplace measure to show health care workers they are valued and respected.”

The documents provided to journalists don’t mention paying people higher wages, however. And at least part of the bursary program to encourage more CCAs was reinstated by the McNeil government in July of last year for 115 Community College students who each received $4000 toward their education.

The PCs estimate the labour cost of staffing nursing homes to care for 3,500 more people would be $88,162,800 a year. (This includes the additional 2,000 new hires.) The annual operating cost for opening 3,500 new beds is estimated at $243-million a year. If the province is not successful in obtaining federal money, the annual operating cost for 2,500 beds would be $169-million.

More housing options

Melville Heights residents watch the press conference. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

A PC government would make available nearly $41 million dollars to provide “Supportive Living” for seniors whose needs are too high to qualify for homecare services but are not medically complex enough to require a placement in a nursing home. This in-between type care is available now to people who can afford to pay for it. It’s often called “assisted living” and the room or the apartment where the person lives independently but with some assistance for meals and housekeeping is often on the same “campus” as the nursing home. Shannex, Gem, and Northwood all provide such arrangements.

The PC program would make government funding available for people who cannot afford to pay with the hope private developers would build the housing.

Barbara Adams, the PC critic for long-term care, says for elderly people who are mobile but can no longer live alone, that means a family member often has to quit their job to care for them. “Our PC Supported Living program will not only reduce wait times for nursing homes,” said Adams, “but it will give families more choices and more autonomy for their loved one.”

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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