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Kevin Sker­rett and Nan­cy Park­er are active in Make Revera Pub­lic, a cam­paign push­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to trans­form Revera, which is a major provider of long-term care in Cana­da, from a for-prof­it cor­po­ra­tion into a pub­lic sec­tor enti­ty and a ful­ly inte­grat­ed ele­ment of our pub­lic health care sys­tem. This cam­paign is hap­pen­ing in the wake of the ter­ri­ble impact of COVID-19 on long-term care res­i­dents, par­tic­u­lar­ly res­i­dents of for-prof­it, pri­vate sec­tor homes, and is focus­ing on Revera because it is 100% owned by a pub­lic sec­tor pen­sion fund. Scott Neigh inter­views them about long-term care, COVID-19, pen­sions, and the Make Revera Pub­lic campaign.

One of the worst aspects of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic in Cana­da has been what it has done to peo­ple liv­ing in long-term care and retire­ment homes. Between March 1, 2020, and Feb­ru­ary 15, 2021, more than 2500 care homes across Cana­da expe­ri­enced an out­break, which led to the deaths of more than 14,000 res­i­dents and around 30 staff. This accounts for more than two-thirds of Canada’s COVID-19 deaths over that time. In Ontario, deaths in long-term care homes dur­ing the pandemic’s first wave were 28% high­er than the aver­age of the same peri­od in the pre­ced­ing five years. More­over, the sto­ries that emerged from some of these homes were tru­ly horrific.

All dif­fer­ent kinds of long-term care homes had out­breaks and prob­lems, but things were con­sis­tent­ly worse in for-prof­it homes. Pub­lic facil­i­ties run by munic­i­pal­i­ties had 1.4 deaths per 100 beds and non-prof­it facil­i­ties had 2.8, while for-prof­it homes had 5.2.

Accord­ing to Sker­rett, this out­come was not at all sur­pris­ing. By allow­ing prof­it to be extract­ed from care homes, what you’re doing is incen­tiviz­ing them to min­i­mize their costs and max­i­mize their prof­it.” The biggest cost is the labour of the peo­ple pro­vid­ing the care – who are most­ly women and dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly racial­ized. So min­i­miz­ing that cost means wages are low­er, work­ing con­di­tions are worse, and staffing lev­els are low­er, all of which is worse for work­ers and worse for the peo­ple they care for.

There are a num­ber of major chains of for-prof­it care homes in Cana­da. In the wake of the atro­cious impacts of COVID, there is grow­ing sen­ti­ment – up to 75% of Cana­di­ans in recent opin­ion sur­veys – that the entire sec­tor should be made part of the pub­lic health care sys­tem. Revera has the poten­tial to be an impor­tant start­ing point for doing so because it is 100% owned by the pen­sion fund for peo­ple who work for the fed­er­al pub­lic service.

The call to trans­fer Revera into full pub­lic own­er­ship ini­tial­ly came last year from the Pub­lic Ser­vice Alliance of Cana­da, the largest union rep­re­sent­ing work­ers in the fed­er­al pub­lic ser­vice. Work­ers and unions have essen­tial­ly no con­trol over man­age­ment of their pen­sion plans, but the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment could make it happen.

That ini­tial call, how­ev­er, wasn’t attached to a cam­paign, and it might have fad­ed away if the idea hadn’t been tak­en up by Sker­rett, Park­er, and oth­er activists involved in the Ottawa Health Coali­tion, which works in the Ottawa area to defend and improve the pub­lic health care sys­tem, and the Ottawa Com­mit­tee for Pen­sion Secu­ri­ty, which deals with pen­sion-relat­ed issues.

Though they are not wear­ing these hats in the con­text of this work, Sker­rett and Park­er both have exten­sive exper­tise when it comes to pen­sions, and that has been very use­ful in the cam­paign – Sker­rett is a research offi­cer with the Cana­di­an Union of Pub­lic Employ­ees whose work has large­ly focused on issues relat­ed to pen­sions, and Park­er is a retired civ­il ser­vant who also worked in the area of pen­sions. (Sker­rett has also writ­ten about Make Revera Pub­lic.)

The groups host­ed a large online pub­lic forum in Sep­tem­ber, 2020. At the same time, they launched an open let­ter endors­ing the demand that Revera be shift­ed to pub­lic own­er­ship, which was sub­se­quent­ly signed by thou­sands of peo­ple. Among Ottawa’s many cur­rent and retired pub­lic ser­vice work­ers, many peo­ple were shocked to dis­cov­er that they were poten­tial­ly ben­e­fit­ing from being indi­rect own­ers of a cor­po­ra­tion that con­tin­ued to prof­it as peo­ple in its care suf­fered and died in ways that could like­ly have been mitigated.

Since then, momen­tum has con­tin­ued to grow, includ­ing among health care advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions and retiree groups, but most notably among pub­lic sec­tor unions. Accord­ing to Sker­rett, unions rep­re­sent­ing more than 98% of union­ized work­ers employed by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment have called for Revera to be tak­en into pub­lic own­er­ship, which is unprece­dent­ed, and some have launched their own cam­paigns on the issue. The fed­er­al NDP has expressed its sup­port. And the Ottawa groups host­ed anoth­er pub­lic forum in June, which was very suc­cess­ful. With an elec­tion expect­ed this fall, a key focus for the groups in the com­ing months will be mak­ing the demand to Make Revera Pub­lic into a cam­paign issue.