Value of Manitoba’s personal care home visiting pods questioned as costs skyrocket

Special visitation rooms at Manitoba personal care homes were supposed to be a quick $18-million fix to the real problem of keeping residents connected with loved ones while keeping COVID-19 out, but CBC News has learned total project costs have ballooned, construction has been delayed and fewer people are using the units than expected.

The cost of the project was pegged at $17.9 million to repurpose shipping containers into visiting rooms when Cameron Friesen, health minister at the time, announced the details of the project in September 2020.

Since then, costs have risen to $85.8 million, including $39.8 million in capital costs for both external pods and internal rooms, plus $46 million in operating expenses over two years, according to a provincial health spokesperson.

Residents, families and care home administrators are questioning if the cost has been worth it since the rooms and pods are not being used as often as initially thought.

The new visitation rooms in Winnipeg’s care homes were used an average of 2.7 times per day from December to February, according to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WHRA).

There are 162 visitation pods in Manitoba — Winnipeg and rural areas combined. External shipping containers make up 105 of them, and 57 are interior rooms.

Shawna Forester Smith lives at Riverview Health Centre. She says the visitation pods are being underused at the facility. (Submitted by Shawna Forester Smith)

“That’s ridiculous for how it’s being used,” said 38-year-old Shawna Forester Smith, who lives in Riverview Health Centre due to severe chronic illness.

“They’re being underutilized. They haven’t even been offered to people on our unit. I don’t even know what the process is, to use one. So it’s kind of useless, to us, to be quite honest,” said Forester Smith.

Pods meant to reintroduce safe visits in second wave

The idea behind the rooms is to make visits safer. Guests enter from outside the personal care home, while an enclosed link allows residents direct access. Air exchange systems ventilate the rooms according to public health guidelines and the interior finishes are easy to clean after each visit. 

Care home visits were suspended for a time at the beginning of the pandemic back in March 2020. Outdoor visits were allowed by May 2020 and as of June 2020, two caregivers per resident were allowed to visit inside in their family member’s room — depending on the care home and if it was in an outbreak.

In June, the province announced its plan to build shelters in order for visits to continue during the second wave, which hit Manitoba care homes starting in October.  

By the first day of winter, December 21, just over a third of the 45 shelter projects at care homes under the WRHA had occupancy permits, despite the province’s procurement documents which state they must be complete by fall of 2020 — although it’s possible some units were in use under interim occupancy permits.

“It’s difficult to see that so much money has been spent with a limited amount of visitors per day,” said Julie Turenne-Maynard of the Manitoba Association of Residential and Community Care Homes for the Elderly.

She believes the province intended for these rooms to be used regularly by residents and family members in order to maximize quality time. 

“[But] when you do the cost analysis versus the amount that it’s being used, there’s obviously a huge discrepancy,” said Turenne-Maynard. 

Laurie Cerqueti of The Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre says its visitation space at the home is used about 40 per cent of the time. (CBC)

A spokesperson for the health department blamed construction delays on a variety of factors including supply shortages caused by the pandemic, COVID-19 outbreaks which prompted some PCH operators to halt on-site construction and the desire of some homes to add additional shelters or convert from an interior room to an external shelter.

Interior room used about 40% of the time

The Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre opened its interior visitation room in the middle of January.

“I think the construction process was quite delayed. So getting it up and running certainly was an issue, trying to find the staff to be able to staff it, even though we had the funding. It’s making sure you have the right people to do the job,” said Laurie Cerqueti, CEO of The Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre. 

Cerqueti estimates the room is used four to six times a day or 40 per cent of the time.

“At this point, we’re not getting the use we thought we would, but perhaps that will change in the future,” said Cerqueti.

The room at the Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre will be available indefinitely, because management chose to renovate an existing space within the home rather than opt for a repurposed shipping container which has a two-year occupancy permit. 

This visitation room inside The Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre opened in the middle of January. (CBC)

Of the WRHA’s 45 visitation units, at least 21 have occupancy permits that expire in two years, according to a CBC analysis of City of Winnipeg records.

“The two-year occupancy permits were agreed upon based on requests from [the province] for that length of time. The City is open to discussing renewed occupancy permits for these buildings if it’s required at a later date,” wrote a city spokesperson who noted visitation pods are similar to modular classrooms, which frequently receive renewed occupancy permits. 

Health Minister responds

More than 100 visitation shelters have been constructed in less than 10 months, current Health Minister, Heather Stefanson said in an emailed statement.

Stefanson said the development of the shelters was on budget, but the budget was increased to add additional shelters at the care homes’ request.

“These shelters are an added protection for some of our most vulnerable citizens beyond the current global pandemic, including influenza season, and we will continue to work with the regional health authorities and personal care home operators to ensure these shelters are used to their fullest potential,” said Stefanson. 

Money could have been better spent: Union

“I’m a little flabbergasted,” said Shannon McAteer, health care coordinator with the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Manitoba, which represents workers at long-term care homes, in response to more than $80 million being spent on the visitation shelters.

“That money could have been allocated more towards staffing levels,” she said in an interview with CBC News.

“Even half of that amount could have seriously, you know, beefed up the staffing levels here in Manitoba, which is what we really needed.”

McAteer supports the need for residents to be able to see their families but stresses the visitation pods create extra cleaning and administrative work for staff.

“It’s just created an extra workload on an already stretched workforce,” McAteer said.