Nova Scotia

Some nursing homes face major insurance roadblocks as visitor restrictions ease

Some long-term care homes in Nova Scotia are considering delaying visits from friends and families of residents or offering a scaled-back version of the eased restrictions that Premier Stephen McNeil and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang announced Friday.

Facilities being told insurance no longer covering contagions such as COVID-19

Visitor restrictions are being eased at Nova Scotia long-term care homes, but officials at some facilities worry about liability insurance. (CBC)

Families and friends with loved ones in long-term care homes in Nova Scotia may not be able to quickly take advantage of easing visitor restrictions, as some facilities face insurance issues they worry could make them liable for lawsuits if COVID-19 were to spread among residents.

On Friday, Premier Stephen McNeil and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang announced that starting Wednesday residents of care homes could be allowed up to five visitors while outdoors, and one person inside. Physical contact will also be allowed.

"Get yourself ready for that visit, and that long-awaited hug," McNeil said. 

But the president of the Continuing Care Association of Nova Scotia, Michelle Thompson, said some of the 50 or so nursing homes and residential-care facilities her organization represents are considering deferring those visits or offering a "scaled-back version" of what Strang and McNeil described.

According to Thompson, who is the CEO of the R.K. MacDonald nursing home in Antigonish, N.S., some homes that have recently renewed their insurance coverage have been told explicitly that they are not covered for contagions, such as COVID-19. That may leave those facilities, staff, volunteers and directors liable in the case of a lawsuit.

"It just puts some facilities in a compromised position because of the time of their renewals," said Thompson. "That liability insurance is not available to them.

"Without the liability insurance we're trying to ascertain what is the liability for the home? How do we protect the staff and our volunteers?"

Michelle Thompson is the president of the Continuing Care Association of Nova Scotia. (Submitted by Michelle Thompson)

Thompson said some homes have lost members of their board of directors over fears they might be personally liable for outbreaks.

Michele Lowe, the executive director of the Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association, is also worried about the new exclusion of contagions on some policies. The exemption clause is so broad that influenza, which comes every year, is no longer covered, she said.

"It is of great concern," said Lowe, whose association represents 83 per cent of the licensed long-term care providers in Nova Scotia. "It is very significant."

Lowe said some homes may require visitors to sign a waiver before they can enter the facility to visit a loved one, and others may simply continue to offer only outdoor and at-a-distance visits.

"There are some members that have volunteer board of directors who are absolutely not comfortable moving forward with this and they will be waiting to get some further clarification from government before they will be extending those visits," she said.

To try and work through what the risks are, the continuing care association has organized a webinar for its members with Wickwire Holm lawyer Will Russell on Thursday to discuss the issues.

He said concerns "came to head" after Friday's announcement.

"Any claims related to COVID-19 are being excluded from different policies that facilities have in place and have had in place," said Russell. "There's a lot of concerns about the potential for litigation for damages."

Russell pointed to the proposed class-action lawsuit filed against Northwood Care Group Inc. and its seven subsidiary and associated companies as the kind of legal action a care home might face during an outbreak. Fifty-three residents at Northwood's Halifax campus died as a result of COVID-19 infections.

Will Russell is a lawyer with Wickwire Holm in Halifax. (Submitted by Wickwire Holm)

He said the people who run care homes are "just trying to sort out what their options are," given families want to see their loved ones and their residents are eager for outside contact.

"You've seen B.C. put an order in place that covers essential services who are not liable for COVID-related damages," said Russell. "Right now it's an open question about what steps the province is going to take to address this issue."

"I do think that that is a quickest and most expedient way of addressing this issue and dealing with it."

A spokesperson for the Nova Scotia government declined an interview request, but said in an email the province was first told of the issue in late June by the Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association.

Marla MacInnis said the government has been working with the Nova Scotia Association of Health Organizations and is gathering information about how many facilities are impacted, although it is waiting on some details.

"The issue extends beyond Nova Scotia as we are aware of work done by British Columbia and are looking at what is being considered in other provinces in response to these circumstances as well," MacInnis said.

Until then, some nursing homes and care facilities in Nova Scotia are unsure what to do, according to Thompson.

"Until we can make those informed decisions and have the information that we need the visitations that were announced may be delayed in some areas," she said.