Manitoulin health institutions now burdened with COVID insurance

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ONTARIO – Health care providers in Canada have struggled with a new challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic: securing adequate liability coverage against the novel coronavirus as many insurance providers have set unattainable prices for that protection.

“When our insurance renewed this year, they said we weren’t going to be covered without an extra fee,” said Cheryl Osawabine-Peltier, administrator of Wikwemikong Nursing Home.

“If something were to happen, the potential of financial impacts is there when we don’t have the right coverage for the home.”

During the first wave of the pandemic, long-term care (LTC) facilities were the main drivers of new cases and especially deaths in Ontario. Many homes had residents living in close quarters and some were working with short staff rosters that prevented adequate care, especially as workers began to get sick and stay home.

In response, several individuals and groups have launched lawsuits against LTC facilities, the government and other entities that allegedly did not do enough to prevent unnecessary deaths or control the spread of COVID-19.

Insurance companies then started increasing their premiums for commercial coverage that included defense against liability stemming from the pandemic.

“We were notified earlier this year that our liability would be impacted if any liability claim involved infectious diseases, specifically COVID-19. That left us open so over the summer we tried to look for options. We were quick to realize that this wasn’t just a hospital sector issue; it was broad across many sectors and it didn’t seem that it was on the province’s radar,” said Manitoulin Health Centre (MHC) president and CEO Lynn Foster.

Insurance Bureau of Canada spokesperson Vanessa Barrasa acknowledged that the current realities are challenging for all Canadians and that commercial liability coverage is still available. However, she said liability coverage against communicable diseases may be difficult to secure even if it had previously been offered in some policies.

“This situation is akin to trying to purchase fire insurance when your house is on fire,” said Ms. Barrasa in a statement to The Expositor.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Thursday, October 22 strongly condemned insurance companies for their practices in light of the pandemic.

“They’re gouging the people. They made a fortune over all these years and I have just had it with these insurance companies. They need to come to the table, start supporting people and insuring—they’re absolutely just refusing to insure people. We don’t play that game,” the premier said.

Although Ontario regulates its automobile insurance sector, commercial insurance is federally regulated.

The difficulty to secure such coverage has impacted governance at Wiikwemkoong’s LTC home. 

“If you look at the lawsuits down south, some of them have sued the boards of the homes as well. We’re finding that people don’t want to join our board because we don’t have that coverage right now,” said Ms. Osawabine-Peltier, adding that she is working on resolving the issue in collaboration with AdvantAge Ontario, an advocacy group for not-for-profit LTC, housing and supports for seniors within the province.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government introduced legislation on Tuesday, October 20, that would prevent a number of sectors including health care—such as LTC facilities and hospitals—from facing lawsuits as long as they tried their best to follow public health guidelines.

This legislation, if passed, would cover back to the first provincial emergency measures in March 2020.

The Ontario Long Term Care Association (OLTCA), a group that represents more than two-thirds of Ontario LTC homes, stated it was pleased to hear the news.

However, critics have warned that this may allow for-profit homes to continue to focus on finances ahead of patient care quality, as has been shown in past studies of the sector. Advocacy Centre for the Elderly and Ontario Health Coalition were among those calling for caution before taking the limited-liability approach.

Jarlette Health Services, which operates Manitoulin Lodge in Gore Bay, did not directly address whether or not the home had COVID-19-inclusive insurance coverage. 

Spokesperson Stephanie Barber shared that Jarlette, along with OLTCA, believes homes struggling to get sufficient coverage need federal support for securing or renewing insurance for their sustainability, revitalization and expansion projects.

“Providers of (LTC) and their insurance partners need a government solution to continue to serve Ontario’s seniors not just now but into the future,” she wrote in an email statement to this newspaper.

Extendicare’s Manitoulin Centennial Manor in Little Current underwent an insurance renewal process earlier in the year and administrator Tamara Beam told The Expositor that her facility was indeed protected with COVID-19 provisions, and was able to secure those with little difficulty.

At MHC, Ms. Foster said the Island hospital’s board reviewed its insurance this past summer.

“We felt, heading into the second wave, that MHC had to make a decision on whether it was going to stay with its current insurance provider or entertain a move to HIROC (Healthcare Insurance Reciprocal of Canada),” she said.

HIROC is a not-for-profit group that formed in 1987 with aims to “disrupt the insurance industry” among other purposes. It offers insurance and risk management to its partner health care providers across Canada.

It offered COVID-19-inclusive liability coverage at a price point similar to MHC’s existing policy with another provider.

The board did not recommend HIROC at the last renewal period, however, because it required a four-year commitment.

“The board felt that there may be risk there if we committed for four years, just the risk of uncertainty in terms of premium escalation percentage,” said Ms. Foster.

HIROC has long been part of MHC’s consideration during its insurance renewal process and several hospitals in Ontario are already members. 

The Expositor contacted HIROC to learn how it has been able to offer COVID-19 liability coverage without the reported exorbitant prices from other providers, but a spokesperson declined to comment on any specific policy.