Will the New Long Term Care Homes Investigation Unit Have Teeth or Just Be a Paper Tiger?

When announcing a new investigation unit to look into allegations of abuse, neglect or misconduct at Ontario’s long-term care homes, the minister responsible for these homes, Stan Cho, stated that our province already has “the toughest inspection and enforcement program in Canada.” While this might be true on paper, the province is often hesitant to use their full powers to punish long term care.

In this blog post, I outline what the Ministry of Long-Term Care hopes to achieve with this investigation unit, explain why the Ministry’s record on enforcement leaves much room for improvement, and provide details about what you can do if you believe a loved one in a long-term care home is being abused, neglected, or is otherwise at risk.

Why has the province created this long-term care home investigation unit?

On January 15, 2024, the Ontario provincial government announced the creation of a new 10-person investigation unit pursuant to the Fixing Long-Term Care Homes Act.

Members of the team, who are designated as Provincial Offences Officers under the Provincial Offences Act, received 19 weeks of comprehensive training that covered “all aspects of the inspections program, the relevant legislation and regulation, investigative techniques such as interviewing, search warrant and report writing, as well as court procedures.”

Supported with $72.3 million in funding, this unit is mandated to investigate allegations such as abuse or neglect of residents, repeat and ongoing non-compliance, failure to comply with ministry inspector orders, suppressing and/or falsifying mandatory reports, and corporate director negligence. If breaches of certain sections of the Act are found, the investigation unit has the power to refer the matter for prosecution, with possible fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and imprisonment of up to a year.

Ontario’s Attorney General, Doug Downey, said: “By providing investigators with the ability to refer cases to prosecutors as needed, this team will help to improve compliance with the Act, keep residents safe and provide comfort and certainty to residents and their families.”

The investigation unit, which complements the province’s existing inspections program, is part of a slew of new initiatives announced over the past few years in response to media reports of poor conditions in long term-care care facilities. These problems became especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other measures include: doubling the number of inspectors, launching a more efficient information-technology system to help inspectors to track their work, and creating new compliance and enforcement tools.

How effective have the government’s initiatives been in fixing long-term care homes?

Only time will tell if the long-term care home investigation unit will improve the lives of the vulnerable people living in these homes by reducing the prevalence of abuse and neglect. One thing’s for certain though, the effectiveness of this tool is only as powerful as the Ministry’s willingness to use it.

During the first wave of COVID-19 infections in the spring of 2020, thousands of Ontarians in long-term care homes became ill and hundreds died. Yet Ontario’s Ombudsman Paul Dubé later revealed that for seven weeks during this period there were no inspections of these homes and no inspection reports were issued for two months. Critical oversight was virtually absent during a time when homes were in acute crisis.

On October 26, 2021, the government pledged to double the number of inspectors by autumn 2022, thereby achieving a ratio of one inspector for every two homes. According to an investigation by CBC Toronto, this promise was not fulfilled on time, and the province remained well short of reaching its goal despite declaring that it had already been achieved in February 2022.

Moreover, while the government has stated that it’s on track to reach its target of 30,000 new long-term care beds by 2028, journalists discovered that several of the homes that received public funding to expand to meet this goal were run by operators with histories of repeat violations. An analysis of monetary penalties and proactive inspection accounts found additional failings. Fines were applied inconsistently when violations were recorded and proactive inspections, which occurred annually for each home prior to 2018, now occurred in only a fraction of homes.

Will the new inspection unit make a difference? The Ministry of Long-Term Care already has the ability to investigate homes, and it can require external management of the home or suspend the home’s licence for serious violations. But, this almost never happens.

At worst, even in some of the most egregious situations, minor fines are issued to the nursing homes. With fanfare, the government’s Fixing Long Term Care Homes Act imposed a new, maximum fine of $1 million on operators found to be in violation of the Act. Yet, a review of fines levied between July 2022 and July 2023 found the highest administrative penalty assessed during this time was only $16,500 – a minor deterrent to large, private long-term care home operators.

Enforcement tools are available, but must be used consistently to affect change

As a personal injury lawyer with a practice focus on nursing home negligence, I regularly see tragic cases of neglect and abuse in long term care homes. These types of incidents should be exceptionally rare, and they would be if Ontario’s long-term care homes were properly funded, well-staffed to avoid caregiver burnout, and closely monitored.

But, like any tool, the ones available in the Fixing Long-Term Care Act are only effective if they are picked up and used. I hope this investigation unit will exercise their powers in these egregious situations and finally create some real deterrence.

HSH nursing home negligence lawyers can help

While systemic change takes time and coordinated effort, individual actions can often reverberate across the entire long-term care network. If you or a loved one has experienced abuse, neglect or other harm in a long-term care home, you may be able to make a claim for compensation for your loved one’s pain and suffering and the loss of care, guidance and companionship you have lost from your loved one as a result.

At HSH LLP, we believe “Hope Starts Here.” Our team of knowledgeable, experienced and skilled nursing home negligence lawyers are ready to help you with your quest for justice in any way we can.

When you contact us for a no cost, no obligation initial consultation, we’ll listen to you attentively and with great empathy, answer your questions, and clearly explain your options. If we believe we can successfully negotiate a fair settlement or win a court award to compensate you for the harm done to you, we will be pleased to offer our services as legal representatives and advocates. We take great satisfaction in knowing that the work we do on behalf of our clients often helps prevent other long-term care residents from experiencing similar harm.

Whether or not Ontario’s new long-term care inspection unit uses its powers to improve the province’s nursing homes, you can be sure that HSH personal injury lawyers will use every tool we can to help individuals and their loved ones who have suffered from abuse, neglect or other negligence in these facilities.

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