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NDP leader Gary Burrill is turning up the pressure on the McNeil Liberal government to improve care for 6,900 people in long-term care facilities across the province.

Burrill and NDP Health critic Tammy Martin were accompanied at today’s news conference by a woman who claims there isn’t sufficient staff at the Parkstone Enhanced Living complex in Clayton Park to ensure her 89-year-old mother can get to the bathroom.

Karen Gibbons says she is a frequent visitor to the “beautiful” Shannex-owned facility where her mother Louise has lived for five years. The daughter says her mother is blind, has had a stroke, and gets around in a wheelchair. Karen Gibbons says three Continuing Care Assistants (CCAs) take care of 25 frail elderly residents on her mother’s unit. She says she often must decide whether to drive 50 kilometers to take her mother to the bathroom after getting a “heart-breaking” phone call complaining staff don’t have the time.

Karen doesn’t doubt her mother’s complaint. Karen Gibbons told the briefing she has observed one CCA attending a resident who has had a fall while two others were busy using a mechanical hoist to transfer another person from bed to a chair. She estimates two-thirds of the people on her mother’s unit require a wheelchair.

“Both the residents and the staff at this home are suffering,” says Karen Gibbons. “It’s not fair to staff who work so hard. I blame the government for not increasing the budget. I plead and pray for more staff but the government doesn’t appear to be listening.”

Gibbons says her mother has had multiple infections this year but still receives a bath only once a week. She says she has previously taken her concerns to management at the nursing home, her MLA, and even the premier before security asked her to leave the steps of the Legislature.

NDP leader Gary Burrill says there are “deep problems in long term care” that have worsened since the Liberal government cut funding to nursing homes by $5 million over the past few years. More beds are needed, he says, but in the meantime the NDP will introduce two bills aimed at improving conditions after the Legislature opens on Thursday.

Burrill says the NDP’s “Care and Dignity Act” would legislate minimum staffing levels which are absent from the Homes For Special Care Act passed 30 years ago. The NDP legislation would commit to paying for 4.1 hours of care per resident each day.

According to Nova Scotia Nurses Union president Janet Hazelton, who attended the news conference, the Department of Health currently pays for about 3.5 hours of care per resident each day — one hour of which must be provided by a Registered Nurse or Licensed Practical Nurse. The Department of Health has not yet responded to a request to confirm that estimate. The NSNU claims the 3.5 hours per day came from the Health Department in response to a staffing question.

The “Care and Dignity Act” envisions the hiring of more Continuing Care Assistants to boost the ratio of staff to residents, which several peer-reviewed nursing studies say improves the quality of care. More staff should translate into more residents getting helped to the bathroom and re-positioned to avoid the risk of bedsores. The NDP estimates it would cost about $59 million or seven per cent more than the $840-million currently budgeted for long-term care. Hazelton suggested the increase might be double that amount. She said seniors are “worth it” and without more funding for staff, people won’t want to work there.

The second piece of legislation the NDP is proposing would put Nova Scotia in line with the majority of Canadian provinces which make public the routine inspections of nursing homes by Department of Health staff. In theory that information can now be obtained by filing a request through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy legislation. In practice, the backlog of requests means the wait time for the inspection reports takes months.

“Before choosing a new home for their loved ones, most people would like to go online and compare,” said NDP leader Burrill. “They shouldn’t have to be a private detective or investigative reporter.  We should care enough about our elderly residents to make this information publicly and regularly available.”

Health Minister Randy Delorey has so far been non-committal about when the government will publish inspection results and bedsore data. He has said “the intention” is to make it public but has offered few details. Delorey has rejected suggestions the province needs to hire more staff for nursing homes or speed up a review of the staffing mix.

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

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  1. Coincidentally, $59 million is about what the Province would be getting if the federal government had followed through on a recommendation in 2015 by the Canadian Medical Association for a “demographic top-up” in health transfers for provinces with older populations.