In March, a Ministry of Long-Term Care inspection report was released concerning the Highland Wood roof failure, and the subsequent evacuation of residents in 2019.

At the time, The Highlander wrote a story that was quickly overshadowed by the onset of COVID-19. Not only was the Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS) preoccupied with the pandemic, but so was The Highlander and its readers. It wasn’t time to expand on the story and publish a more in-depth piece.

However, with the report, and other investigations, including interviewing two roofers who alleged a history of known problems with the roof, the paper continued to work on the story knowing that one day the timing would be better.

With HHHS having a solid handle on COVID and Highland Wood families wanting a comprehensive story told, we decided this was a better time.

After all, there is much to be learned from – and improved upon – from the Highland Wood roof failure, just as there is much to be learned about, and fixed, with the plight of long-term care homes during COVID-19.

We have learned that the roof saga was littered with errors. The report cited a lack of emergency planning, communication, staff support, maintenance and funding. Some families, staff and management of HHHS have now all attested to how ruinous it was and how many problems the system has.

With the onset of COVID-19, LTC homes across the province have gone through unexpected, bizarre emergencies. HHHS has passed the COVID test in its two LTC homes with flying colours. It has done a much better job of crisis management. We think part of the reason is they have learned from the roof shortcomings.

Other homes have faltered during COVID, unequipped to handle such an emergency, and thereby exposing more horrific underlying problems with LTC.

We can no longer accept the status quo. HHHS and the province must draw from Highland Wood and all other examples to fix what is broken.

We picked up the roof story again in late May, taking the necessary time to put everything together.

Much of the information in today’s Highlander, such as the inspection report and the accounts of the roofers, is new.

We wanted to ensure all the information we had was presented in one central story that can easily be referred to as the province prepares an independent commission to review LTC. We need to highlight stories like these – not to criticize HHHS during a pandemic – but to help ensure nothing gets missed when the province hopefully overhauls LTC.

To some readers, Highland Wood’s roof situation may pale in comparison to what the military found in other Ontario LTC homes. But we can’t ignore it. It’s part of a bigger picture. The commission must consider and learn from it.

Nor can we let the province off the hook. It is ridiculous that HHHS could only get grant funding to repair its Haliburton hospital roof in 2017, but not the attached LTC home, when they were the same building. Not only would this likely have prevented the tragedy two years later, but it seems inefficient not to get it all done at once. The province was non-committal when we asked about it, but we hope to see it addressed after the commission gets underway.

As our population ages, we need a robust LTC home system to handle it. It will be difficult and costly, but necessary. Sometimes, it takes a crisis to make us realize change is needed. We must ensure our leaders see this so the system can be fixed.

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