Federal Budget 2021: Long-term care standards, vaccine production in health plan

OTTAWA — The federal budget is promising billions to close gaps in long-term care and Canada’s vaccine production laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said the pandemic preyed "mercilessly" on Canada's most vulnerable seniors and it cannot be allowed to happen again.

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"We have failed so many of those living in long-term care facilities," she said in her budget-day speech in the House of Commons.

"To them, and to their families, let me say this. I am so sorry. We owe you so much better than this."

To begin to fix it, the government is promising $3 billion over the next five years to help provinces implement new standards. The funds won't begin to flow until next year, after those standards are in place.

Freeland said they will be based on work underway by the Canadian Standards Association and the Health Standards Organization, which began last month.

The CSA is seeking to establish normal practices for the physical design and operations of long-term care homes, including ventilation, while the HSO is looking at infection control, safety and quality of care.

Outbreaks of COVID-19 ran rampant through Canada's long-term care homes, infecting more than 53,000 residents and 27,000 workers.

More than 15,000 residents died, almost two-thirds of Canada’s total death toll from the pandemic to date.

Provincial governments have jurisdiction for long-term care, so any funding from Ottawa would have to be sent to them. The Canada Health Act does not currently include long-term care, making it difficult for Ottawa to use existing health transfers to help push any specific standards for care.

It is not clear yet exactly how the funds will flow or what provinces will have to agree to do, but the budget does promise to respect provincial jurisdiction.

"This work would ensure seniors and those in care live in safe and dignified conditions," the budget plan says.

The budget also seeks to fix Canada's gaping hole in vaccine production, with $2.2 billion over the next seven years, split up through various funds and programs for research and capital investments.

That includes $500 million for capital and infrastructure at universities and research hospitals, and $1 billion in Strategic Innovation Fund money to help the most promising life science and biomanufacturing companies.

However, the funds are split over so many years there could be two or even three elections by the time they're supposed to be spent, and the budget provides scant detail on how the funds would flow or what kind of production capacity they would generate.

While Canada's vaccinate rate has improved — it's now vaccinating a bigger share of its population per day than any other G20 country except the United States — it got off to a very slow start and that's largely because it can't make any COVID-19 vaccines at home yet.

The Liberals have said that is because the strong biomanufacturing industry Canada used to have up and left for more supportive countries over the last 30 years.

Instead, Canada is at the mercy of other countries for its entire supply of vaccines right now, leaving Canada to wait and watch some of its allies get vaccines into arms and return to a more normal life much faster.

The budget also provides some money to address the mental health crises erupting from the COVID-19 pandemic, and small amounts for palliative care and to ensure access to medical assistance in dying.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2021.

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