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The Lynn Valley Care Centre is pictured in Lynn Valley in North Vancouver, B.C., March 16, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The renewal and expansion of more than 4,000 publicly operated long-term beds promised in last week’s B.C. budget may take up to 10 years and could still fall short of what experts say the province needs.

After a year in which deaths from COVID-19 have disproportionately affected seniors living in long-term care in the province, the B.C. government has committed to improving senior care by training and hiring more health care workers and investing in care facilities.

The budget says the province will build 1,500 new beds and will replace 2,850 outdated beds at publicly-owned long-term care facilities. But critics say the province requires a far more ambitious plan to meet the fast-growing needs of B.C.’s aging population.

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Terry Lake, chief executive officer of the BC Care Providers Association, said that while the province’s move is positive, it is nowhere near the projected demand of 30,000 new beds by 2035.

The Conference Board of Canada projected in a report in 2017 that by 2035, the number of new beds needed in B.C. is the equivalent of 0.6 of its current population – roughly 30,000.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said in an interview last week that the new beds are in the planning stage and the project may take up to 10 years to be completed.

Mike Old, interim secretary-business manager for the Hospital Employee’s Union, which represents more than 50,000 health care workers in B.C., called on the government to fast track the capital building plan on long-term care, saying the province is facing “an urgent need” for long-term care beds.

“Is it fast enough? We’d like it to be a bit more ambitious than the plan that we saw in the budget, but it’s a good start.”

Dan Levitt, executive director of Tabor Home, a long-term care facility in Abbotsford, said the timeline for these projects seems reasonable but the 10-year window is the “end point.”

“We got to get this done by 2030,” he said.

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In a recent article penned by Mr. Levitt and published on medicinematters.ca, he pointed out that the staffing and infrastructure needs to increase over the next decades to accommodate the baby-boomer demographic. He also wrote that a hospital-style nursing home built in the 1960s with long corridors where staff are rushed to porter seniors to and from large dining rooms for their meals that are made in a cafeteria-style kitchen is far from ideal for seniors with multiple chronic conditions.

“We need to replace those buildings with a place that we all would be proud to call home,” Mr. Levitt said in an interview.

B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie said besides the addition of new beds, other issues that need to be examined in long-term care include multiple-occupancy rooms.

A report published by Ms. Mackenzie’s office last December shows that of all 27,505 publicly subsidized long-term care beds in B.C., 13 per cent – 3,576 – are in double-occupancy rooms and 11 per cent – 3,025 – are multiperson rooms. All beds in B.C. are provided roughly in equal measure by public, private and not-for-profit care providers

Mr. Dix said the budget commitment includes upgrading the long-term care facilities to the modern standard of single bedrooms.

But he noted accommodating an aging population requires supporting home care and improving assisted living spaces, measures required beyond creating extra long-term care beds.

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“You’d never be able to build long-term care homes to meet demand unless you give people more supports in the community,” he said.

Ms. Mackenzie agreed, saying that part of the way to address demand is to ensure there is more support for people who want to stay at home and more subsidized assisted-living care for those who can’t afford private assisted care.

The vast majority of B.C. seniors live independently in their own homes. About 3 per cent live in long-term care and 3 per cent live in seniors assisted-living facilities.

The budget also provides measures to increase the support for home care and a $585-million fund to train and employ up to 3,000 health care workers over three years.

Jennifer Baumbusch, a nursing professor at the University of British Columbia, said the pandemic has showed that congregate living, such as care homes, creates risks for older people.

“I am not sure that building more institutional spaces is the best approach,” she said. “We need to engage older people and their caregivers in creating a new system of seniors care in B.C.”

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Mr. Lake said that although the replacement and new beds identified to date are for health authority beds, he’s hopeful for-profit and not-for-profit new beds will also be added to meet demand.

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