Safety rules governing night supervision in certain Quebec seniors' homes are being relaxed even though a devastating fire in the middle of the night last week destroyed a residence for the elderly in the small community of L'Isle-Verte and took many lives.
On Wednesday, authorities reported that 19 people died in the Résidence du Havre fire, and 13 more were still reported missing.
Quebec Health Minister Réjean Hébert confirmed that small private seniors' homes with fewer than 50 residents will no longer be required to hire specially trained night attendants to care for the elderly. Night attendants will only be required to have basic first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation training to be hired.
The new rules, which were adopted by cabinet late last year and went unnoticed when published in the government's official Gazette between Christmas and New Year's, will come into force 45 days after being officially published some time in February.
The L'Isle-Verte tragedy has placed enormous public pressure on the government to strengthen regulations involving seniors' homes. The original changes would have applied to all private seniors' homes. However, Mr. Hébert, who appeared distinctly uncomfortable, said he only realized after a media report this week that the new regulation would apply to all seniors homes. He said Wednesday the regulation had not been properly worded, and that it would be changed to target only smaller seniors' homes.
He also apologized for the error and took full responsibility – but pointed out that the owners of private seniors' homes had lobbied hard for looser regulations.
"There was a strong lobby to relax this rule, but I resisted and I have always resisted. I continue to resist. We will not compromise when it comes to security of people and the quality of services," Mr. Hébert said.
Still, the minister added that he bowed to demands made by several non-profit or co-operative housing groups that operate seniors' homes in small communities and needed to cut costs.
"They argued that you didn't need a staff member at night. It could be a resident with training to deal with emergencies and we agreed," Mr. Hébert said. "Otherwise these homes would have been forced to increase rents or even be decertified, which would defeat the purpose."
The more pressing question, according to the minister, was the debate over the installation of sprinkler systems in all seniors' homes.
"My desire is to have tougher regulations that would require owners to install sprinklers in all seniors' homes," Mr. Hébert said. "It hasn't been done because it is a complex problem that includes fire codes and building codes. … Installing sprinklers in an existing building is a major renovation. We have to make sure we adopt standards that people can follow."
Mr. Hébert said the requirement to install sprinklers could first be imposed on new builds, as well as on private homes for semi-autonomous elderly residents who are more vulnerable. The government was also examining a financial assistance program to help owners pay for the cost of sprinklers, which the minister said could cost up to $80-million.
"The tragedy at L'Isle-Verte has forced us to examine our actions and see whether we should act more quickly," the minister said. "We took a first important step when sprinklers were installed in publicly owned seniors' homes … Now we have to decide whether all [seniors'] homes should have sprinklers. That decision will be made once we receive the experts' report."
Opposition parties said the government was too slow in seeking solutions. Quebec solidaire member Amir Khadir accused Mr. Hébert of negligence by refusing to adopt tighter regulations.
"The government has a responsibility to adopt stricter rules and improver training for staff members in private seniors' homes, .Mr. Khadir said Wednesday. "It is appalling that the minister … should decide to relax security rules in residences for the elderly. The government's complacency with the private sector is unacceptable."