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Home care: More funding needed, but especially under a new model

This essay is part of a series of reflections on primary care during the pandemic presented by Réseau-1 Québec. The original essay published in French on May 19, 2020 is available here >>

The Covid-19 crisis, with its fatal impacts on vulnerable seniors, impels us to rethink our model of services in support of functional disabilities. The Canadian health care system and the Canada Health Act have put hospitals at the heart of the health response. While this orientation was warranted in the last century to meet the needs of a younger population, it is much less valid today as an older population faces chronic conditions and disabilities. In this essay, I will explain why institutionalisation and group housing became the preferred models in Canada. I will then show that home care is the appropriate approach for addressing the current and future needs of older adults facing a loss of autonomy. Finally, I will propose an efficient and more appropriate method of financing home care: autonomy insurance.

In Canada and Quebec, the proportion of older adults living in residences that provide care services is higher than in other industrialized countries. Long-term care accommodation rates are 5.7% and 5.9% for people aged 65 and over in Canada and Quebec, respectively, compared to the OECD average of 4.7% [1]. But it is in seniors’ residences (SRs), where more than 100,000 seniors live (7%), that Quebec stands out. More than half of all spots in SRs in Canada are in Quebec. Nearly 20% of people over age 75 in Quebec have chosen to live this collective lifestyle, which means that seniors are concentrated in a certain autarky and in a self-exclusionary way from other social groups [2]. These seniors of the so-called “silent” generation are looking for security and access to services, as needed. Their children, from the baby boom generation, have also seen SRs as a practical solution to ensure their parents’ support and security. While residences were struggling to fulfill their mandate prior to the crisis, it is now clear that in light of the Covid-19 outbreaks and the widespread containment measures that were imposed in these settings, this mandate is no more than an illusion.

The popularity of collective housing stems from the inability of society and the health care system to provide the home care services needed in the event of functional decline. The absence of adequate home care has put increased pressure on long-term care institutions (CHSLD), and a lucrative market of non-licensed private CHSLDs and seniors’ residences has developed in an anarchistic manner, with no state control. But the seniors of today and tomorrow would prefer to continue living at home, provided they can have access to sufficient and good-quality services in the event of any functional decline. This requires a change in how we view autonomy support services: rather than moving people to residences that meet their needs, it would be better to adapt and develop home care services that allow them to live where they have chosen to age.

Home care represents only 14% of public funding for long-term care in Quebec and Canada. All other OECD countries devote a larger share of their long-term care public funding to home care, even reaching as high as 73% in Denmark [3]. The low investment in home care here can be explained by the logic of our funding model; the Canadian health care system essentially covers medical and hospital care. This means that accommodation provided in long-term care institutions is covered by the public health insurance plan, whereas home care is funded at the margin, at the discretion of each province. As such, it is understandable that the institutional solution would take precedence.

But investing more in home care will not be enough to effect significant change. A longitudinal study looking at the services used by all Sherbrooke seniors from 2011 to 2015 showed a significant progressive decrease in home care services over this period: from 200,000 visits per year in 2011 to less than 60,000 in 2015. This decrease was particularly significant among people receiving a higher intensity of services. This phenomenon was all the more troubling given that the 2013–2014 budget included an additional investment of $110 million for home care, a 20% increase in the base budget. Clearly, this increase did not lead to improved services. Instead, institutions reallocated funds according to their priorities. At that time, CLSC home care services were managed under the same budget as hospital and residential services. So hospitals received these additional investments. It is easy to imagine that, with the 2015 reform in Quebec, which created large regional institutions including rehabilitation and youth services, the situation will not improve and that the recent investments in home care will not translate into additional services for home care users. For the management of the current superstructures, the temptation is too strong to reorganize revenue sharing to cover the rising costs of regular hospital care.

So, we need to move away from the current institution-based funding model. Rather, the new funding model for long-term care should be based on the needs of individuals. This is the principle of public long-term care insurance that has been implemented in many countries over the past 20 years, including in Japan, France, and most continental European countries [4]. In these insurance systems, the person’s needs are assessed using a disability measurement tool. An allocation is determined based on level of need. This allocation is used to pay for public or private services chosen by the person or their family in accordance with the intervention plan developed by a health professional, often a case manager. Some countries even allow a cheque to be issued directly to the person, who can then arrange for the needed services. Provider quality is ensured through a mechanism of accreditation, and service quality is evaluated by the case manager. These insurance plans are usually funded on a “pay-as-you-go” basis through employer–employee contributions, annuity tax, income tax, or other specific forms of revenue (such as electricity fees or the abolition of a statutory holiday).

This is what was proposed by the autonomy insurance plan in Quebec in 2013, when I was a minister in the government. In fact, Quebec has several elements already in place that would facilitate rapid implementation of this important reform: an assessment tool already widely used for all persons requiring home or residence-based services (the Multiclientele Assessment Tool [OEMC], which includes the Functional Autonomy Measurement System [SMAF]); a classification system consisting of 14 standard disability profiles (Profiles Iso-SMAF), used to translate needs into the necessary resources and allocations; case managers already deployed as part of the integration of services following the PRISMA project; computer tools to support the development of intervention plans and service allocation; and an efficient management body that is already keen on this type of funding model, the Régie de l’assurance-maladie du Québec [5].

Following the publication of a white paper [6] that was well received by all stakeholders, a bill was tabled in the National Assembly in December 2013. It was never adopted due to the hasty election call and the loss of power by the Marois government. The bill was not taken up by subsequent governments. The project may be dead, but the idea is not, and the elements that that would make it possible are still present. It is all the more relevant today in light of the Covid-19 crisis.

Our seniors deserve to age at home with the services they need. If the funding and organization of services is adapted to 21st century realities, Canadians and Quebecers will choose to age at home and will resist the siren calls of residences and other places of institutionalized social exclusion. 

Réjean Hébert, M.D., M.Phil., Professor, Department of Health Administration, Evaluation and Policy, École de santé publique de l’Université de Montréal (ESPUM)

An edited version of this text appeared in Options politiques de l’Institut de recherche en politiques publiques: //

References :

[1] OECD. Health at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators.

[2] Hébert, R. 2006. Les vieux se cachent pour mourir. //

[3] Huber, M., Rodrigues, R., Hoffmann, F., Gasior, K., & Marin, B. 2009. Facts and Figures on Long-Term Care. Europe and North America. Vienna: European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research.

[4] Hébert, R. 2012. L’assurance autonomie: une innovation essentielle pour répondre aux défis du vieillissement. Revue canadienne sur le vieillissement, 31(1):1-11.

[5] Hébert, R., Gervais, P., Labrecque, S., & Bellefleur, R. 2016. L’assurance-autonomie au Québec : une réforme inachevée. Health Reform Observer – Observatoire des Réformes de santé, 4(1):Article 1. doi:[6] Hébert, R. 2013. L’autonomie pour tous: livre blanc sur la création d’une assurance autonomie. //