The Ontario government is launching an independent commission to examine the province's long-term care homes and the circumstances that led to the deaths of more than 1,300 seniors during the COVID-19 crisis.
The provincial government says the commission's work will begin in September and crucial details such as the "terms of reference, membership, leadership of the commission and reporting timelines" are still being finalized.
Minister of Long-Term Care Dr. Merrilee Fullerton said that the "non-partisan, independent commission" is the best way to identify the "issues" in these facilities while providing transparency for Ontarians.
"We’re taking action. We’re not waiting. We’re the first province that is coming forward and going to have a commission involving the public and we want to make sure that long-term care—the issues in long-term care—are addressed," Fullerton said at a news conference on Tuesday.
"This is something that we believe as a government is a priority, it has to be, and we need to address the questions that Ontarians have."
Fullterton added that a report on the commission’s findings will be made public upon completion.
The Ford government has rebuffed several calls for a public inquiry, which would be governed under the Public Inquiries Act, opting for a review of the system instead.
Ford doubled down on this position at a seperate news conference on Tuesday saying that a public inquiry would take too long to deliver recommendations while also touting his own initiative on the subject.
"I was the first premier in this entire country, and the first leader that I’ve seen right across North America, including the United States, to come out with my hand up saying ‘I want a commission' and I’m not going to wait two-and-a-half years like the Wettlaufer or SARS, that took three-and-a-half years to get answers, while people are dying," Ford said.
Ford's çomments are in reference to the results of a recently-conducted public inquiry into the long-term care system, which was called in Aug. 2017 after registered nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer was convicted of killing eight residents at long-term care homes.
The inquiry delivered its findings along with 91 recommendations in July 2019, two years after first being called.
A government spokesperson said an independent commission would be able to hold public hearings, deliver a publicly accessible report and could finish its work much faster than a public inquiry.
"Ontario has had numerous inquiries, studies and Auditor General reports over the past two decades documenting the problems in the system," Ivana Yelich, spokesperson for Premier Doug Ford said on Twitter. "We know the system is broken. We can't afford to wait for another inquiry to tell us what we already know."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has argued that a public inquiry should be able to examine pre-pandemic conditions in the province's 630 long-term care homes, the government's preparedness and response for the pandemic.
“A government-controlled commission is just a review —a back-room process that won’t give long-term care residents and their families, seniors entering care, and loved ones of COVID-19 victims the voice they deserve, the respect they deserve, or the major overhaul to long-term care that all long-term care residents need and deserve," Horwath said in a statement issued Tuesday.
Horwath put forward a motion on Tuesday asking the government to launch a full, independent public inquiry into the province's long-term care system, but it was voted down in the legislature.
"Voting no to a public inquiry is salt in the wound of families grieving the loss of loved ones to COVID-19 in long-term care, and for health care heroes who are run off their feet and still pleading for personal protective equipment," Horwath said in a statement issued after the vote.
"It is a cause for us all to worry that the painful, dangerous, decades-in-the-making problems in long-term care are not going to change."
Horwath also called for a review of the role and future of for-profit groups in the sector.
Despite that, Fullteron says that a commission will "better suit" the government in its attempt to "transform long-term care."
"Public inquiries and independent commissions will both shed light on what’s happened on COVID-19."
"We can’t afford to wait longer."
SEIU Healthcare, the union which represents some 60,000 health-care and community service workers across Ontario, is also calling for a public inquiry.