Highland Wood could be a bellwether for catastrophe to come.

The long-term care facility’s emergency closure has gotten scarce attention outside of our county, but it deserves a lot more notoriety. After a tumultuous evacuation due to a sudden roof failure last year, family, staff and management held nothing back in severely criticizing how it was handled. A report was released Feb. 21.

For the Ministry of Health and LongTerm Care (MOHLTC), and Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS), it is an embarrassment.

Highland Wood was a tragedy and exposes lapses in our health care system that need to be addressed. It is no surprise that people involved described long-term trauma. It cannot be understated how difficult it can be to move someone from a long-term care facility, many at the end of life. Though such moves do not necessarily lead to worse physical health, the mental and emotional toll on some families and residents was severe. Nobody should have to spend their precious final days dealing with this, but it happened, and at least two residents passed away after getting moved.

By all accounts, the powers were not fully equipped to handle the situation. Residents were moved quickly enough, but things got more difficult after that. Some families struggled with multiple moves. People complained about communications problems and a lack of support. There were issues with the repatriation process and staff struggled with the increased demands of the situation. The HHHS board was criticized for being absent, and deservedly so; it has been quiet on Highland Wood, when it is apparent it should have been very vocal.

This all raises questions about the state of long-term care infrastructure, both with Highland Wood and across the province. The roof nearly made it to its replacement date in the spring but failed unexpectedly ahead of time due to ice buildup, after a difficult freeze-thaw cycle in the winter. HHHS maintains the early failure could not be predicted, but it is apparent that families, management and staff do not buy that.

We cannot say whether HHHS should have been able to avoid this, though we will endeavour to answer those questions. But long-term care infrastructure is an issue the province must address. With long-term care projects assuredly on the rise, they must be built to withstand the elements and the more severe weather climate change will bring. Those facilities that already exist must get funding to guarantee proactive maintenance. Staff also must get proper support, lest a critical part of our health care sector suffer employment shortages due to burnout.

It is worth noting not every family found the experience onerous. Some felt the process went smoothly and their relatives received good care elsewhere after being moved. But the scope of negativity from staff, management and families shows that nothing can be brushed aside.

HHHS appears to be treating this seriously, but we will monitor closely to see their follow-through. We do recognize that HHHS showed courage in releasing this damaging feedback to the public. We also recognize that if the local health services didn’t have to worry so much about annual budgets, thanks to MOHLTC lack of funding, it wouldn’t have had to play “Russian roulette” [as one reported point of feedback called it] with the roof in the first place. It did gamble, but the MOHLTC was the one holding the gun.

We are at a turning point in our country. Our senior population is ballooning and our health care system is attempting to adapt to that. Haliburton is at the heart of it, with its large senior population. But If Highland Wood is any indication (and we have not even touched on waiting lists yet) our health care system is not ready to handle the influx.

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