LTC Minister leaves abruptly after response to devastating LTC report

Merrilee Fullerton, Minister of Long-Term Care. (Screenshot from news conference on May 3, 2021)

Merrilee Fullerton has responded to Friday’s devastating report on the impacts of COVID-19 in the province’s long-term care homes, but the Minister’s appearance left reporters with more questions than answers.

The 322-page independent commission’s report detailed how services broke down in the first wave of the pandemic and offered 85 recommendations to fix the system. The recommendations including stockpiling personal protective equipment, offering staff and residents counselling to deal with the trauma, accelerating efforts to increase staffing, increasing inspections, and strengthening the relationship between facilities and hospitals.

“Many of them are in line with measures our government has already begun and is underway,” said Fullerton. “Urgently implementing our staffing plan, investing in stronger [infection prevention and control] measures, and developing thousands of new long-term care spaces.”

She assured the public her government is investing $9.6-billion to make long-term care and retirement homes safer. Fullerton also said she would be providing regular public updates on the government’s progress.

In the coming year, the number of personal support workers expected to graduate will more than double to more than 16,000.

“Fixing this problem will take many solutions,” said Fullerton. “And we know there is a lot more to be done, and we’re going to keep doing it.”

Asked twice when she knew about residents dying in long-term care of neglect rather than COVID-19, Fullerton was evasive.

“As a doctor, you know I spent decades helping people and being there in their time of need. This thing, this virus; it has been collectively devastating,” she said. “But we have to move forward.”

Fullerton was similarly ambiguous when asked if she or her government would apologize for the more than 3,700 deaths in long-term care.

“I think collectively as a society I think we need to do some soul searching and understand why it took a pandemic to address the capacity issues and staffing issues in long-term care. Our government, and as a ministry of long-term care, we started urgently as soon as we became a ministry to address that — the waitlists,” she said. “It’s very, very clear in the commission report and the auditor general report that these were long-standing issues.”

However, she admitted the responsibility has fallen to her ministry.

“I ran for a political office because I kept saying why isn’t anyone doing something about long-term care,” said Fullerton. “I absolutely take responsibility for the well-being of residents.”

The Minister called personal support workers the “backbone” of the long-term care system, but when a reporter asked when those workers could expect a pay increase, Fullerton would not say.

“This whole sector, including this staff, has been neglected for many, many years,” she said. “We are fixing a broken system, and for our PSWs, I know that we will do everything possible to make sure they receive the support that they need and deserve.”

Seconds later, the Minister abruptly left over the objections of reporters in attendance and on the phone.