Years of systemic ageism in Ontario’s health system that treats the elderly as though their right to care is lesser than others contributed to more than 280 Ottawa long-term care residents dying from COVID-19 in the last year, say advocates who yesterday asked the Human Rights Commission for a ground-breaking probe.

The Ontario Health Coalition (OHC), the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU) the hospital division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly (ACE) are calling for a public inquiry on human rights discrimination against the elderly in access to and levels of care in hospitals and long-term care.

Over the last three decades as the population was growing by 4.5 million and aging, Ontario governments have pursued the most radical hospital downsizing of any province in Canada cutting 20,000 hospital beds. In Ottawa thousands of hospital beds have been eliminated. At the same time, the province rationed access to long-term care. Resulting in a wait-list for a bed of more than 38,000 mostly elderly Ontarians. In Ottawa alone, the wait times for long-term care homes range up to 1,836 days (over 5 years).

The Ottawa Hospital, The Montfort and Carleton Queensway among others in Ottawa are chronically overcrowded, routinely running over 100% capacity or higher.  Patients are crowded into emergency rooms, creating enormous pressure for the elderly to be transferred out to wherever they can find a space, regardless of the safety and appropriateness of their care.

Across Ontario, more than 2,200 mostly elderly people – deemed alternate level of care (ACL) patients, “often derisively referred to as bed blockers were offloaded from hospitals into makeshift facilities like Ottawa’s Greystones – a private retirement home - during the pandemic,” says OCHU’s Michael Hurley.

Across the province, only a small percentage of long-term care residents with COVID-19 were hospitalized prior to their deaths. A recent study found that only 22.4% (1 in 5) LTC residents who died with COVID-19 were hospitalized. This compares to 81.4% (4 in 5) people who lived in the community.

“The culture of hospital diversion for long-term care residents carried through the first wave and second wave. The older the resident, the lower the rate of hospitalization,” says the OHC’s Natalie Mehra.

A human rights inquiry into Ontario’s systematic discrimination against the elderly in access to health care is long overdue say OHC, OCHU/CUPE, ACE in a letter to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

“COVID-19 has shone a harsh light on Ontario health care’s systemic ageism in the treatment of the elderly. Four bed ward rooms, understaffing, lack of PPE, failure to hospitalize residents. But the policy choices that got us here are decades-old and must stop,” says Jane Meadus with ACE.

Today the advocates also urged the provincial government to immediately ensure everyone gets the hospital and long-term care they need free from discrimination based on age. They also called for a stop to the transfer of ACL hospital patients to non-hospital facilities.