The Ontario Health Coalition has taken legal action against the province of Ontario over the granting of a new 30-year licence to Southbridge Care Homes — a for-profit company that owns Orchard Villa, where more than 70 residents died during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It's hard to think of what happened at Orchard Villa without getting emotional, said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the health-care advocacy group at a news conference on Tuesday.
"In case people have forgotten, it's one of the most notorious long-term care homes in the country — 206 of 233 residents contracted COVID-19, almost everyone, and more than 70 died," Mehra said.
"At a death rate of 30 deaths per 100 residents that would make it among the highest, if not the highest death rate in Ontario during the pandemic."
A 2020 CBC investigation into COVID-19 death rates in care homes across the country showed that Pinecrest Nursing Home had the highest death rate in Ontario at that time — 43 per cent.
The coalition's lawyer, Steven Shrybman, said they've asked the Superior Court of Ontario for a judicial review to set aside a decision by the Ministry of Long-Term Care to approve a proposal by Southbridge Care Homes to build and operate a new long-term care home on the site of the current Orchard Villa.
"The home would be substantially larger than the one it would replace and would be licensed for a period of 30 years," Shrybman said. "So the first request is to review and set aside the decision and approval that the ministry has given to this project."
Lawyer Steven Shrybman, left, and Ontario Health Coalition executive director Natalie Mehra, right, at a news conference on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2023. (CBC)
The coalition is also asking the court to prohibit the ministry from taking any further steps to facilitate the project, including by providing any capital funding for it.
Additionally, the Ontario Health Coalition is seeking "a declaration from the court that the ministry acted unlawfully in approving the Southbridge project."
Shrybman said the notice of application filed with the court sets out the grounds upon which remedies are being sought. Both sides have agreed on Oct. 14 as the date for a hearing and a decision is expected by the end of the year, Shrybman said.
CBC News has reached out to Southbridge Care Homes for comment.
In a statement, Daniel Strauss, spokesperson for the minister of long-term care, said people living in Pickering "deserve a new, modern long-term care home.
"Our government believes in building Ontario's long-term care capacity, not reducing it," he said, adding that the province has spent $6.4 billion to "build 58,000 new and upgraded" long-term care spaces.
" All proposed license extensions must undergo a rigorous undertaking process to show they can meet these new high standards, as is the case with the proposed Pickering development," he said.
Cathy Parkes, whose father was a resident at Orchard Villa and died on April 15, 2020 during the first wave of COVID-19, says she saw firsthand how the home was being run.
"I'm at a loss for words as to how this home can be granted a licence to go ahead with the new build not only for an extra 87 beds, but the potential of over 800 beds," Parkes said at the news conference.
"When you look at their record, at the incident reports that are publicly available, you can see that they were having trouble before the pandemic. You can see from the military report and the news reports what happened during the pandemic, and then that has not been corrected."
Cathy Parkes, whose father was a resident at Orchard Villa and died on April 15, 2021 during the first wave of COVID-19, says she saw firsthand how the home was being run. (CBC)
Parkes said the incident reports are "quite detailed."
"They're continuing to fail in infection prevention and control, in restraining residents, in not having clean linens," she said.
"Everything that was always present is still present, things that were found in the military reports are still present and yet without warning, without notice, they were granted this step to move forward toward a licence and a new build."
Parkes said she decided to join the Ontario Health Coalition's the legal proceeding because people deserve better.
She's hoping the court will reverse the licence granted to Southbridge Care Homes.
"I'm shocked and I think the families of Orchard Villa, we've been talking, we're all shocked," she said. "I think the public deserves better. I think that residents of long-term care deserve better."
At a separate news conference on Tuesday, Premier Doug Ford acknowledged "it was a tough time during COVID," but said his government has been "improving the processes in all long-term care homes" and "making tremendous moves when it comes to creating more homes right across the province."
Ford said "there was a lot of problems with many homes right across the province," but "we've corrected those problems. We have more inspectors going in, we're modernizing all the facilities … People are going to live a lot more comfortable than sitting in a long-term care home when it's about 100 degrees out."