As I write this column, the COVID-19 death toll in Canada stands at 6,873. Plus one that no one talks about.
COVID-19 may finally have shaken the blind belief that private enterprise can do any job more efficiently than public.
When death rates in long-term care facilities soared, the governments of Ontario and Quebec called in the military to help out.
Some of those military members wrote a report on the care deficiencies they observed. Which they passed to their superior officers. Who passed it to the provincial governments. Who made them public.
The Ontario report hit the headlines first. Ontario Premier Doug Ford didn’t mince words. He called it shocking, disgusting, and disgraceful.
The Quebec report was, perhaps, less inflammatory, but just as damning. So far, no one has speculated how universal the deficiencies may be:
— Re-using hypodermic syringes
— Re-using catheters without proper sterilization
— Using outdated medications
— Limiting access to personal protective equipment
— Failing to change protective equipment when moving from COVID-infected patients to non-infected.
— Having inadequate staff — too few, overworked, poorly trained.
— Thank God my wife chose to die at home.
But before you simply recoil in shock, notice please every one of those defects results directly from the facility’s operators trying to pinch pennies. To reduce costs. And thus to improve profits.
With the staff shortage go other horrors documented in the Ontario report:
— Unattended patients crying for help for two hours.
— Diapers not changed.
— Pressure sores untreated for two weeks.
— No baths for up to two months.
— Rooms infested with cockroaches, flies, and ants.
— Infected patients mingled with non-infected patients.
If you doubt those details, you can read the full report for yourself: macleans.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/JTFC-Observations-in-LTCF-in-ON.pdf
Once again, I need to state that this report deals with only five of Ontario’s long-term care facilities. There is no suggestion that all privately operated facilities are equally guilty. One of those five, a charity operated home, had far fewer faults noted.
A Toronto Star analysis of public data found that for-profit nursing homes had four times as many COVID-19 deaths, proportionately, as non-profit and municipal homes — a figure later confirmed by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams.
The National Union of Public and General Employees came up with an even higher figure — for-profit homes had “double the death rate in non-profit homes, and more than eight times the death rate in publicly owned homes.”
How could it be otherwise? Provincial health plans define how much they will pay for patient care, regardless of who owns the facility. If for-profit facilities want to make a profit, they have only two options. They can increase charges — which means opting out of the provincial health system. Or they can cut costs — of staff, of buildings, and of services.
All other things being equal, a public institution doesn’t have to make a profit; a private one does. Do the math for yourself.
In Ontario, 57% of long-term care homes are privately owned, 24% owned by non-profit/charitable organizations, and 17% are municipally owned
Premier Ford sounded genuinely distressed by the military’s whistleblower report. He shouldn’t be. Before the current pandemic, Ford bragged about cutting social services — including the number of inspectors checking long-term care facilities.
Just as former Conservative premier Mike Harris slashed environmental inspections shortly before the Walkerton contaminated-water tragedy.
Harris instituted deficit-cutting slashes to health and education in 1995. Liberal governments under Kathleen Wynne and Dalton McGuinty didn’t reverse the trend.
The policies are commonly attributed to economist Milton Friedman of the Chicago School of Economics. Friedman advocated a free market economic system with minimal government intervention.
In essence, he argued that private enterprise could do anything more efficiently than government.
Taken to an extreme by disciples such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, his principles translated into a conviction that the less government, the better.
It also translated into countless “P3 projects” — public-private partnerships — meaning that if a project is successful, the private part takes the profit; if it fails, the public part pays the tab.
Interestingly, the only thing that what’s called “neoliberal economics” or “monetarism” didn’t urge government to get out of was funding for the military.
Which is, ironically, the institution that has now rung the bell on the innate falsity of Friedman’s premise.
Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic will force us to recognize that there are some things that governments should do, and there are some things that should not be left to the tender mercies of for-profit corporations.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. Email: email@example.com