Coronavirus Canada Updates: Alberta long-term care group lobby government for bill to protect against COVID-19 lawsuits

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Coronavirus Canada Updates: 273 new COVID-19 cases reported in Manitoba on Saturday
Coronavirus Canada Updates: 273 new COVID-19 cases reported in Manitoba on Saturday

A group representing Alberta continuing-care operators is asking government to introduce legislation that would protect them against lawsuits related to COVID-19, according to a filing with the province’s lobbyist registry.

It’s an issue a federal advocacy group says hinges on the ability for continuing-care providers to obtain insurance they need to operate.

A number of class-action lawsuits against the sites have been initiated in Alberta, alleging negligence in protecting clients from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The lobbyist registration from the Alberta Continuing Care Association (ACCA), filed in early January, says the group is pushing the provincial health and justice ministries to introduce a bill to legislature aimed at “facilitating COVID-19 legal liability protection for continuing care providers.”

In the filing, the organization argues the Public Health Act does not currently provide explicit protections for operators “acting in good faith.”

Steve Buick, press secretary to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, confirmed the association was aware of the lobbying from the ACCA but said no decisions have been made.

The organization did not immediately reply to a request from Postmedia to interview its executive director, Wayne Morishita, who is listed as one of the organization’s lobbyists.

They said in a statement they are working with the United Conservative government to address legal liability protections for care providers.

“The ACCA appreciates the opportunity to work with the provincial government to review current protections from liability under Alberta’s Public Health Act and to collaborate on potential solutions to help protect Alberta’s essential continuing care industry,” the statement read.

Continuing care in Alberta comprises long-term care, supportive living and home-care sites.

The Canadian Association for Long Term Care is communicating with its provincial counterpart in Alberta about their advocacy.

Donna Duncan, a board member for the federal group who also serves as CEO of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, said potential liability for “inadvertent transmission” of COVID-19 has created an “existential issue” for the industry, creating difficulties in obtaining insurance they require to operate.

“Our challenge is, at this critical time across this country, we need to rebuild our long-term care homes and we need to rebuild our human resources, but we’re at this state where if you don’t have liability coverage, you can’t get financing from banks,” Duncan said.

“We really are quite concerned that the long-term care sector is on the brink of collapse by virtue of insurance.”

One firm leading several lawsuits targeting continuing-care providers is Calgary’s Guardian Law.

The firm is currently pursuing certification for a $25-million class-action lawsuit against Revera Living on behalf of a woman whose mother died from COVID-19 at the McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre, as well as a separate wrongful-death action against the facility. That site’s outbreak early in the pandemic saw 20 deaths and 111 infections.

Jonathan Denis, a lawyer at Guardian, said he believed the legislation being lobbied for by groups representing continuing-care operators is an attempt to shirk legal responsibility.

“(They’re) lobbying to try to get the government to pass legislation that would attempt to short-circuit our class-action lawsuit,” Denis said. “I think Revera sees there is liability here and they’re trying to back-door out of liability for their negligence.”

In a statement, Revera commended industry groups, including the federal continuing-care association, for lobbying for legislative changes on behalf of care-home operators.

“We are pleased that our industry organization has taken the lead role in making sure that governments across the country are aware of the impact these issues are having on care providers,” said Revera spokesperson Larry Roberts.

A bill similar to the one being proposed by Alberta’s care association was passed by Doug Ford’s Ontario government last October. It requires those alleging harmed caused by exposure to demonstrate gross negligence, rather than ordinary negligence.

The introduction of similar legislation in Alberta would allow groups not to answer for their shortcomings, according to the executive director of the Alberta Friends of Medicare advocacy group.

“It removes accountability. And I think instead of removing so much accountability and focusing on that, they should be focusing on the improvement of regulations and expectations of how we can ensure that people get the best level of care possible,” said Sandra Azocar.

“It angers me to think this is their focus.”

Azocar said while she doesn’t believe litigation is necessarily the solution to improving continuing-care in Alberta, she said the legislation being lobbied for would harm people within the system.

“We’re looking at a system that has been in crisis for decades, and a light has been shone on all the cracks in the system,” she said. “They just don’t want the accountability that comes from the fact they have turned this health-care system into a profit-making venture.”

Duncan said the industry does not want to block legal action against continuing-care operators who are truly negligent.

She said if companies go bankrupt due to an inability to obtain insurance, they would be unable to pay damages in any class-action lawsuit.

“We want to ensure our homes have insurance so that people can go through due process and seek justice where they believe there has been wrongdoing. We have zero, zero tolerance for abuse or neglect,” Duncan said.

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