a woman standing at a podium
Long-term Care Minister Barbara Adams announces the government’s new spending plan. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

The Houston government will spend $57 million over the next two-and-a-half years to address critical staff shortages in long-term care. 

Across the province there are hundreds of unfilled positions for continuing care assistants (CCAs) who provide front-line care to elderly people living in nursing homes, in their own houses through home care, or in residential care and assisted living facilities. Staff shortages mean longer days for the people who come to work and numbers provided by the Department of Seniors and Long-term Care suggest hundreds of people have quit.

Over the past 20 years, 12,000 CCAs have graduated from one- and two-year training programs offered through the Nova Scotia Community College. Today only 6,600 are on the provincial payroll earning between $16 and $18 an hour. Only 375 students are currently enrolled at community colleges, which have the capacity to train twice that number. 

In light of these facts, the Houston government says it plans to spend $22 million over the next two-and-a-half years to cover 100% of tuition and training to attract another 1,400 CCAs to the health system.

“We welcome the increase in funding that will cover 100% of tuition for students who want to become CCAs. That is a good thing, and it will help with recruitment,” said Louise Riley, chair of CUPE’s long term-care and community services coordinating committee. “But realistically, it is better wages and increased staffing levels that will keep the CCAs we have now and attract the 1,400 additional CCAs that the premier says will be hired,” she added.

Contract negotiations between the government and CUPE, which represents about 4,000 CCAs, will begin in the new year (2022).

Get paid while you learn

The government is also endorsing a new “work and learn” training program developed by the Cape Breton Career College. It involves three days of online learning and two days of paid work experience at participating nursing homes and home care agencies. 

The 30-week crash course is currently offered only by the Cape Breton Career College but the Department of Seniors and Long-term Care is hoping other private career colleges and some NSCC campuses will jump in to train more people through the use of the same curriculum.

CUPE Nova Scotia president Nan McFadgen has some concerns about the 30-week “work and learn” course.

“We would like to know how long-term care standards will be maintained with such an individualized/site specific approach,” said McFadgen. 

The third largest expenditure should help improve the ratio of staff to elderly residents: $11 million is going directly to nursing home operators. Employers can use the money to either offer full-time work to casual employees or hire more “temporaries” until new graduates and more internationally-trained workers arrive — $2 million is being spent on an overseas recruitment blitz.

“Today’s announcements are exceptionally welcome news and represent another step forward in promoting positive change in Nova Scotia’s continuing care sector,” said Mary Lee, the president of Health Association of Nova Scotia, a group representing employers.

The Houston government continues to say it will make good on its election promise to legislate a new standard that will increase the amount of care received by elderly residents to 4.1 hours a day. But that change would be meaningless unless there are more people and more money available to grow the workforce. 

More temporary beds

Yesterday’s announcement by Seniors and Long-term Care Minister Barbara Adams accompanied by Premier Tim Houston was mostly to address the chronic staff shortage in long-term care. But there was also $14 million over the same two-and-a-half years to add an estimated 100 “temporary” beds until promised new facilities with 2,500 single rooms get built. 

For now, the government plans to convert vacant beds in residential care facilities operated by the Department of Health to provide higher-level nursing care for about 100 elderly people. It will spend $6 million to pay for 30 beds currently operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs at Camp Hill Hospital. And it will extend a temporary agreement to lease 23 beds from Shannex in the former Sisters of Charity convent.

“There are hundreds of elderly parents and grandparents in hospital waiting for a bed in a long- term care home and even more waiting in community,” acknowledged Adams. “These are first steps and just part of our commitment to improving the continuing care system for employees and seniors needing care”.

NDP Health Critic Susan Leblanc said the investments to date do not match the rhetoric the PCs used on the campaign trail when they promised 2,500 single rooms within the first three years.

“Today’s announcement is disappointing to say the least,” said Leblanc. “Significantly more long-term care beds are needed to make sure residents have rooms and washrooms of their own, and to address the serious problems of wait times in hospitals and emergency departments. Tim Houston made huge promises during the election, yet today’s announcement of 100 beds doesn’t come close to what’s required.”

Leblanc praised the plan to eliminate tuition fees for CCAs but said without improvements to wages and working conditions, employers will struggle to keep front-line staff. Contracts come up for negotiation in the new year.

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

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