Keep health care public

By Jack Bourassa, Regional Executive Vice President for the North
As published in the Yellowknifer, April 2016

Privatizing long-term care in the Northwest Territories will drastically reduce the quality of care for our seniors and increase the cost for taxpayers.

With the territory’s senior population quickly blossoming – the GNWT predicts that by the year 2034, 11.6 per cent of the NWT’s population will be aged 70 years or older – the government is frantically searching for space in long-term care homes.

But dozens of studies, and the territory’s very own NWT Seniors’ Society, warn against privatizing health care to cover the shortfall in long-term care beds.

In a public meeting with MLAs, The NWT Seniors’ Society condemned the closed-door dealings that led to the creation of the Stanton Hospital Renewal Project and the impacts of this 30-year public-private partnership on the territory’s health system.

The evidence is quite clear when it comes to privatization in the health care system. The Ontario Auditor General recently released a damning report about Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) in that province, which states that projects cost over $8 billion more than if they had been fully financed and operated by the public sector.

Seniors simply have too much to lose when their health and well-being is gambled away to the lowest bidder, who is more concerned about increasing their profit margin than creating a healthy and safe space for residents.

Recent U.S. research also reports that for-profit companies that administer long-term care spent about 25 per cent more than not-for-profit agencies and a whopping 40% more than government agencies to provide patient care, according to the Policy Alternatives think tank.

The public health care system is also much more efficient at retaining staff, meaning that experienced nurses and care providers continue to serve residents. While no similar studies exist for the NWT, in B.C. and Manitoba, turnover rates for private for-profit employees reach 50 per cent, while unionized workers have a rate of 32 per cent and public workers 15-25 per cent.

It’s understandable the GNWT is in dire need of a solution, and fast. The territory’s aging population is forecasted to cause a shortfall of 467 long-term care beds by 2034, and the government currently has only 28 new beds under construction.

But there are viable alternatives that don’t rely on murky deals with the private sector.

Health and Social Services staff have had long conversations with the Avens Manor in Yellowknife, which continues to offer the highest level of patient care and support. Avens has room for expansion and is willing to work with the territory on a new capital project.

A generous federal budget has also put aside $200.7 million over two years, starting this year, to support the construction, repair and adaption of affordable housing for seniors. Better still, provinces and territories will not be required to cost-match these investments. It’s predicted the funding will help improve the housing conditions for more than 5,000 low-income senior households, with some undoubtedly in the North.

Yet perhaps most important of all is for the GNWT to have open discussions about long-term care with those that are most affected.

This government has preached a big game about transparency and accountability, and yet just days after the NWT Seniors’ Society met with Health and Social Services about seniors’ care, the government released a report pushing for privatization in long-term care.

Where were the discussions with seniors and stakeholders? It seems this government is firmly on track to continue plowing on with its own agenda, oblivious to the voters that elected it to power.