The Northwood nursing home on Gottingen Street in Halifax. Photo: Halifax Examiner

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On Friday, Premier Iain Rankin announced plans to spend $96.5 million to renovate 17 long-term care facilities across the province and add 264 new nursing home beds in the long-term care homes in Nova Scotia Health’s Central Zone around Halifax. A single tender will go out in August for the new long-term care beds, which will cost $29.9 million, and another 236 previously announced last January for the Halifax area. The new beds are anticipated to come onstream two to three years from now.

Meanwhile, officials with the Department of Health and Wellness, who were at the technical briefing in Halifax that took place before the premier’s announcement at a nursing home in Glace Bay, said they predict it will take at least five years before renovations are complete at the 17 other facilities. Renovations will include replacing shared bathrooms and adding more single rooms. 

“The $96.5 million we are announcing today will address increasing demand for long-time care beds and ensure providers are equipped to support the needs of those living in long-term care,” said Rankin, who flanked by three Liberal cabinet ministers and federal MP Mike Kelloway during another election-style announcement.

“These residences will be built according to space and design standards that put the needs of residents first with smaller households, private bedrooms and washrooms, and a greater focus on infection prevention and control,” Rankin continued. “This is about rejuvenating the sector because we are determined to change the face of long-term care.”

Health department officials say the average wait time for a nursing home bed in the Central Zone or Halifax area is eight months compared to five or six months across the rest of the province. Those “average wait times” are based on data collected over five years prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. They don’t necessarily reflect the current circumstances. The Halifax Examiner reached out to the Department of Health and Wellness and learned there are currently 1,607 Nova Scotians on the wait list for long-term care beds. Of that number, 206 are now in hospitals, while 1,401 are in the community. 

Modelling by the Department of Health and Wellness predicts the new beds being added and $64.8 million in renovations will reduce wait times to two months. The government is betting demographic changes in rural areas will mean less pressure on nursing homes there than in Halifax. Here is a list of the 17 facilities that will receive upgrades over the next five to six years:

Today’s funding announcement also includes $792,000 to hire nine full-time staff to oversee the infrastructure projects, $615,000 for new information management systems recommended since 2015, and the promise of a new “blueprint” for long-term care, which will include infrastructure, plans for workforce development, and infection control. Senior health officials said that blueprint should be ready by August of 2022. Meanwhile, a continuing care strategy, which has been “in the works” since 2017 and appeared to have run out of gas will now supposedly be released this August. 

Today’s Liberal announcement is bound to be compared to a three-year plan unveiled last August by the Progressive Conservatives, which proposed spending $851 million to carve out or create at least an additional 2,500 private single rooms for people needing long-term care. The higher number is dependent on support from Ottawa. PC leader Tim Houston also promised to hire as many as 2,000 additional nurses and continuing care assistants, although it’s not clear where they would come from since the province is currently fast-tracking immigration candidates to fill vacancies. In a news release, Houston said today’s announcement “doesn’t come close to addressing the serious need for investment in long-term care.”

When seniors can’t get into long-term care, they are forced into the hospital. When they are forced into the hospital, wait times for everyone grow. When wait times grow, ambulances can’t get to patients in need of urgent care. It’s all connected, and it’s clear Iain Rankin doesn’t understand that.

NDP leader Gary Burrill has also been a vociferous advocate for single rooms for every long-term care resident in the province. In a statement, Burrill says today’s announcement comes only after pressure from “families, seniors’ advocates, and front-line workers on long-term care improvements.”

For eight years, the Liberals argued that there wasn’t a need for new long-term care beds. Now, on the eve of an election, the Liberals have admitted that they were wrong. Because of the Liberals’ delay, seniors who need long-term care and their families will still be waiting five or more years for change. 

Both Health Minister Zach Churchill and Rankin pounded home the fact that today’s announcement is “on a continuum” of two other long-term care announcements made by the Liberals in the past two years. Six new nursing homes with 197 new beds announced in 2019 — three of them in Cape Breton — should be ready in two to three years. This past January, while Rankin was campaigning to be leader, Premier Stephen McNeil announced that 236 new beds would be built in Halifax, including 44 at Northwood, with the cost to be determined at a later date. That announcement also included the repair and renovation of seven nursing homes with the first one likely to come onstream in 2024-25. 

On a national scale, Nova Scotia in smack in the middle of the pack when it comes to accommodating its frail elderly residents. Eight-thousand Nova Scotians live in long-term care with 32.8 beds per 100,000 people aged 65 and over. That’s slightly better than the national average at 28.8 beds per 100,000, but not much to brag about. So far, the Liberals claim they have implemented about half the recommendations made by various reports and task forces stemming from a number of deaths from bedsores in 2018-19 and the death of 53 Northwood residents at the region’s largest nursing home during a COVID outbreak in 2020.                                                        

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

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  1. Meanwhile the ERs are full of admissions as there are no vacancies in nursing homes.