Judge heads inquiry into long-term care homes
Broader mandate called for by critics
TORONTO — An experienced Appeal Court judge will head a sweeping public inquiry into systemic issues at Ontario’s long-term care homes that may have contributed to the murders of eight seniors at the hands of a longtime nurse.
The province says Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Eileen Gillese will have a broad mandate to review policies, procedures and oversight of longterm care homes and will report to the Attorney General by July 31, 2019.
The inquiry was triggered by the case of Elizabeth Wettlaufer, who pleaded guilty in early June to eight counts of first-degree murder, four counts of attempted murder and two counts of aggravated assault. Her crimes, which took place over the course of nearly a decade in three Ontario long term-care facilities and a private home, made her one of Canada’s most prolific serial killers.
In all those cases, Wettlaufer — who is currently serving a life sentence with no chance for parole for 25 years — deliberately overdosed her patients with insulin.
The judge who presided over her case said the 50-year-old never would have been caught if she hadn’t confessed to the killings while at a psychiatric hospital in Toronto last September. Court heard she had access to insulin and covered her tracks when using the medication to harm her patients.
“My team and I will do our utmost to determine how these events could occur and to make recommendations so that the tragedies of the past are not repeated in the future,” Gillese said.
The inquiry was announced by Ontario’s Attorney General and the Minister of Health and LongTerm Care on the same day Wettlaufer pleaded guilty.
Gillese’s appointment as the inquiry’s commissioner takes effect immediately. It will include recommendations that will improve the safety and well being of senior residents, the province said.
The government has launched a website for the inquiry, which states that investigative work has already begun and public hearings will be held in 2018.
Doris Grinspun, the CEO of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, applauded the broad range given to the inquiry’s commissioner.
“My colleagues are crying for an in-depth look at nursing homes to ensure that resources are put in place so that they can deliver the care that they want to deliver.”
The Ontario Health Coalition, a public health advocacy group, is concerned about its duration.
“The government’s mandate for the inquiry gives it two years to conduct its work, pushing the final report and recommendations until well after the next election and media interest has died,” said executive director Natalie Mehra. “This is too long. It means that recommendations will not be forged and acted upon for years.”
Ontario NDP Leader and Hamilton Centre MPP Andrea Horwath is blasting the governing Liberals for what she calls a missed chance to address many serious issues with long-term care by having an inquiry only look into the Wettlaufer murders.
Ministry of Attorney General spokesperson Emilie Smith confirmed the inquiry mandate is “to inquire into … contributing factors which led to the offences committed by a particular person.”
It means cases like Hamilton’s James Acker, who was attacked and severely beaten in his sleep by another resident on his floor at St. Joseph’s Villa in February and later died, won’t be looked into.
“I think the government missed an opportunity to do the right thing,” said Horwath. “We believe this is an opportunity to have a hard look at what’s happening in long-term care. It’s definitely in crisis,” she added. “Our concern is it (the inquiry) is not looking into the safety of residents and staff and other identified problems.”
While she agrees the Wettlaufer murders need to be looked into, so do other serious problems: “The horror stories being shared by loved ones are too common … we need a full investigation.”
The inquiry needs a broader scope, she said.
One of the areas likely to be scrutinized by the public inquiry is the role Ontario’s nursing regulator played in the Wettlaufer case.
Some details of the College of Nurses of Ontario’s involvement came under the spotlight at a disciplinary hearing last week, where the regulator found Wettlaufer guilty of professional misconduct and revoked her certification.
The college knew Wettlaufer was fired from the Caressant Care nursing home in Woodstock for a medication error in 2014, but she continued to work — and harm patients — until she resigned as a nurse in September 2016.
Caressant Care told the college about the firing.
But the college said it decided not to conduct a formal investigation after interviewing the facility’s nursing director, who the college said identified no underlying issues with the nurse.
By not doing an official investigation, the Caressant Care firing remained private, which meant the public, and other nursing employers, didn’t know about the termination.
Justice Eileen Gillese will lead the independent public inquiry.
The inquiry will look at policies, procedures and oversight of long-term care homes after Elizabeth Wettlaufer admitted killing seniors in her care.