New Brunswick campaign for long-term care reform gathers steam

When New Brunswick’s Conservative Party won a majority in the recent snap election, it expected a clear path to deep austerity and sweeping privatization. But the province’s labour and community movements are quickly mobilizing a campaign to defend public healthcare and win progressive reforms to long-term care.

In October, the New Brunswick Nurses Union (NBNU) published The Forgotten Generation: An Urgent Call For Reform In New Brunswick’s Long-Term Care Sector. The report is based on a year of extensive research into the LTC sector and the specific challenges that residents, families and workers face. It includes 38 recommendations for strengthening LTC in the province.

Forgotten Generation specifically examines the deterioration of LTC care that accompanied the sector’s “slide towards privatization.” The authors show that this process was the result of more than a decade of deliberate government policy – both Liberal and Conservative – to increase the amount of for-profit care in the province. They conclude that the problems in LTC “would be exacerbated with the further introduction of a profit motive – like pouring gasoline on a fire.”

Among the report’s 38 recommendations are: including nursing home care as part of public healthcare under the Canada Health Act, with federal funding and standards; immigration reform, increased university funding and abolition of student debt for nursing students, to relieve nursing shortages in Atlantic Canada; increased per-person healthcare funding in New Brunswick, which is currently the lowest in Atlantic Canada, and a halt to privatization in the LTC sector. The report also calls for increased university funding and other measures to increase the number of Francophone nurses in the province, and immediate action to increase the number of permanent full-time positions for LTC workers and stop the trend toward casualization. Several of the recommendations deal with the problem of violence experienced by residents and workers.

The list of recommendations for improving LTC, which the authors note “are not presented as a menu from which Government may pick or choose,” form a comprehensive plan which provides a strong basis of unity to a broadly-based structured campaign of labour and community forces.

The NBNU report has received support from the provincial arm of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), New Brunswick’s largest union with 30,000 members in health and other areas of the public sector, and the New Brunswick Federation of Labour (NBFL). Both of these union bodies have denounced the provincial Conservatives’ opposition to federal standards for LTC. CUPE NB President Brien Watson said he was “concerned that our Premier does not want to fix our broken long-term care system. Establishing standards is the best way to ensure all seniors, no matter where they may be or no matter their income, have a basic right to live in dignity,” and asked, “Why can’t our Premier work with other provinces and Ottawa to raise the bar for everyone?” NBFL President Daniel Legere expressed “disbelief and shock” at the Higgs government position and insisted, “New Brunswick seniors do not deserve a lower standard of care than seniors living elsewhere in Canada.”

Also on board with the campaign are the New Brunswick Coalition for Seniors and Nursing Home Residents’ Rights and the Common Front for Social Justice, a labour-supported organization that has worked for progressive reform for over 20 years.

The New Brunswick campaign is part of a country-wide escalation in the struggle to defend and expand public healthcare, most immediately in the area of long-term care. Building this fight within each region, deepening labour-community solidarity and forging strong linkages across the country will be critical to winning the radical reforms that are so urgently needed.

As Dr. Deborah van den Hoonaard of St. Thomas University wrote in the foreword to Forgotten Generation, “The COVID­19 pandemic has shone a harsh light on many societal problems in Canada, and long­term care is at the epicentre of those problems, with more than 80 percent of deaths occurring in long­term care facilities … The tragic consequences of COVID­19 have provided us with an opportunity to make real, fundamental changes to how we organize nursing homes. We need to do more than put a few band aids on the system. We need to make fundamental changes.”

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