Care home gripes spike in wake of Wet­t­laufer

Com­plaints about con­di­tions, staff con­duct, al­leged mis­treat­ment jump af­ter killer nurse’s spree re­vealed

The Chatham Daily News - - FRONT PAGE - JEN­NIFER BIE­MAN

Thrust un­der a harsh spot­light by El­iz­a­beth Wet­t­laufer’s mur­der spree at two South­west­ern On­tario nurs­ing homes, On­tario’s long-term care sys­tem has seen com­plaints spike in the year since the killer nurse’s crimes came to light.

Last Oc­to­ber, the same month Wet­t­laufer was charged with eight counts of first-de­gree mur­der for killing res­i­dents of nurs­ing homes in Wood­stock and Lon­don dur­ing seven years, the num­ber of com­plaints about long-term care shot through the roof — jump­ing nearly 50 per cent from the month be­fore, and up by 112 per cent from the same month a year be­fore.

When Wet­t­laufer grabbed head­lines again in Jan­uary, slapped with four counts of at­tempted mur­der and two of ag­gra­vated as­sault, also in­volv­ing vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple in her care, the num­ber of com­plaints to the Min­istry of Health and Long-Term Care rose again, up 17 per cent from the month be­fore.

And in June, when the worst killer in Cana­dian medical his­tory pleaded guilty to all charges and was sent to prison for life, with no chance of pa­role for 25 years, dozens more com­plaints poured in than in the pre­vi­ous month, ris­ing by 11 per cent.

The com­plaints cover ev­ery­thing from con­di­tions in On­tario’s long-term care sys­tem, which num­bers about 630 homes and nearly 80,000 res­i­dents, to staff con­duct and al­leged mis­treat­ment of res­i­dents.

But the spikes in com­plaints sur­round­ing key events in the Wet­t­laufer case are just one part of what Queen’s Park crit­ics say is an alarm­ing trend: the steady in­crease in ob­jec­tions to care and con­di­tions in On­tario’s vast longterm care sys­tem.

Two years ago, be­tween Oc­to­ber and De­cem­ber 2015, On­tario av­er­aged 265 ur­gent and non-ur­gent com­plaints each month. Ur­gent com­plaints are the most se­ri­ous, in­volv­ing al­le­ga­tions such as abuse or ne­glect.

That com­plaint vol­ume has since risen sharply, av­er­ag­ing 407 be­tween June and Au­gust this year.

Crit­ics and se­nior-care ad­vo­cates say they’re not sur­prised — that the sys­tem is un­der­staffed and un­re­spon­sive to com­plaints, el­e­ments some want ad­dressed in a gov­ern­ment-promised pub­lic inquiry into Wet­t­laufer’s in­sulin mur­ders at Ca­res­sant Care in Wood­stock and Meadow Park in Lon­don.

What some also won­der is how the gov­ern­ment will keep up with com­plaints at the huge end of the health-care sys­tem, amid a rapidly aging pop­u­la­tion.

“I’m not sur­prised in the in­crease in com­plaints,” MPP Teresa Arm­strong, the On­tario NDP critic for se­niors’ af­fairs.

“The sys­tem is bro­ken,” said the Lon­don-Fan­shawe MPP. “Peo­ple are telling us that it’s bro­ken — they’re com­plain­ing, they’re go­ing through the right chan­nels . . . yet this gov­ern­ment isn’t pay­ing at­ten­tion.”

Arm­strong cited a 2015 re­port by On­tario Au­di­tor Gen­eral Bon­nie Lysyk that found back­logged in­spec­tions of long-term care homes for com­plaints and so-called “crit­i­cal in­ci­dents” — is­sues that must be re­ported im­me­di­ately, from ne­glect and abuse to im­proper care and un­ex­pected deaths — had dou­bled in 15 months.

Two years ear­lier, the prov­ince was found to be vi­o­lat­ing its own nurs­ing-home in­spec­tion law. It re­sponded by hir­ing ad­di­tional in­spec­tors.

With a grow­ing tide of com­plaints, the prob­lem is only go­ing to get worse, said Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive long-term care critic Bill Walker.

“It’s ab­so­lutely a cause for con­cern,” said the Bruce- Grey- Owen Sound MPP.

“You want to see those num­bers go­ing down, cer­tainly not in­creas­ing.”

For Walker, the is­sue boils down to one thing; If the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment had made sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ments to the long-term care sys­tem, and man­aged it prop­erly, com­plaints wouldn’t be go­ing up like they are.

“It’s not like this is a phe­nom­e­non that just plunked down on our planet in the last year,” he said.

“We’ve known that this baby boom de­mo­graphic is com­ing at us. You would ex­pect the gov­ern­ment to be con­fi­dent and have plans in place to be proac­tive.”

Is­sues in the long-term care sys­tem pre­date the Wet­t­laufer case, but ob­servers say her crimes have pushed them into the spot­light.

Wet­t­laufer, who killed eight peo­ple over seven years at the two homes, quickly landed a job at the Lon­don home where her fi­nal vic­tim lived af­ter be­ing fired from the Wood­stock home amid al­le­ga­tions of re­peated med­i­ca­tion-re­lated er­rors. In all the cases, she ad­min­is­tered deadly doses of in­sulin.

“Not only are more peo­ple pay­ing at­ten­tion to nurs­ing home care, it’s in­dis­putable that the acu­ity lev­els are go­ing up in the homes, too,” said Natalie Mehra, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the On­tario Health Coali­tion, an ad­vo­cacy group devoted to pro­tect­ing and im­prov­ing pub­lic health care.

Mehra said nurs­ing homes are strug­gling to han­dle pa­tients with com­plex needs that would have filled chronic-care hos­pi­tal wards decades ago. The re­sult has been so many com­plaints, she says, in­spec­tors are scram­bling to keep up.

“There is no ques­tion that the in­spec­tion sys­tem is stretched,” she said. “We’re told the in­spec­tors can­not do all of the in­spec­tions that they need to do based on com­plaints. There’s just not enough of them and not enough re­sources to do it.”

The min­istry as­sesses all pub­lic com­plaints. Those in­volv­ing vi­o­la­tions of On­tario’s Long-Term Care Act are in­ves­ti­gated fur­ther. Other com­plaints can be ad­dressed with­out an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

When in­ves­ti­ga­tions have oc­curred, the num­ber of non-com­pli­ance in­frac­tions found de­creased by 18 per cent in 2016 com­pared to pre­vi­ous years, the min­istry’s David Jensen said by email.

With the com­ing pub­lic inquiry into Wet­t­laufer, her crimes and the long-term care sys­tem in its early stages, se­niors ad­vo­cate Wanda Mor­ris said the broader is­sues are harder to ig­nore.

Mor­ris said it’s dif­fi­cult to give one rea­son for the in­crease in longterm care home com­plaints, but it’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing.

“In the past, what we’ve heard (is that) peo­ple are scared to come for­ward with a com­plaint be­cause they’re wor­ried about reper­cus­sions against their loved one in the cen­tre,” she said. “One pos­i­tive thing we can take from the num­bers is, hope­fully, this is more peo­ple will­ing to come for­ward.”

Wet­t­laufer

Arm­strong

Walker

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