Province cutting nine N. Ontario health units now down to just two

SUDBURY – While officials for Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD) had anticipated working with five other neighbouring health units in Northern Ontario, in preparations for the provincially imposed amalgamation of boards, the region that they are included in will be even larger.

“We don’t have any of this in writing, but the ministry has proposed its 10 regions for the board of health units in the province,” said Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, chief medical officer of PHSD, in an interview with the Recorder Tuesday. “We have been working on the assumption that when the 35 units were reduced to 10 we would be with our neighbouring health units that we have been working with. We are (being amalgamated) with those five health units as well as the Muskoka area (part of the Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit), and Nipissing—the northern part of Renfrew around Algonquin Park.” These two will be part of region nine, which also includes North Bay Parry Sound, Sudbury, Algoma (Sault Ste. Marie area), Temiskaming and Porcupine. 

“The news to us is that the region will include the Northern part of Renfrew around Algonquin Park, and the Muskoka area, which I don’t know much about but do know its population increases substantially in the summer,” said Dr. Sutcliffe. 

“The information we received from the ministry makes all that we have heard and been working toward more real now,” said Dr. Sutcliffe. “It’s a massive overhaul of the public health system, and the fact that we have already been working collaboratively with our neighbouring health units in the Northeast has proven to be well worth the effort.”
Dr. Sutcliffe explained that the Ministry of Health has indicated, “the overall projection is that the cuts we see in funding will be $1.2 million, which is not insignificant, and we understand there will be a one-time investment by the province this year (April 2019-March 2020) to help make up some of the shortfall.”

“There obviously has been lots of change, and it has been hard on our staff to help continue to do their work and focus on what needs to be done to benefit the public health service. But our employees have maintained their focus; we have a really good team,” said Dr. Sutcliffe, noting that the majority of the public health unit budget goes towards people, so if reductions as anticipated take place, efficiencies will need to be found and money will need to be saved.

“We are in a good place because of the work that we as our neighbouring health units have done together,” said Dr. Sutcliffe. “And with the changes being made we will have to roll up our sleeves and get to work and make this work because public health is too important and has to be protected.”

As for when the changes in boundaries are expected to take place, Dr. Sutcliffe said the new organization is supposed to be in place by April 1, 2020. “We don’t know at this point when we as (Sudbury district) the health unit fold out and the new boundaries kick in.”

NDP health critic France Gelinas says Doug Ford’s scheme to cut the number of Northern public health units to just two—down from nine—is dangerous to the health and safety of Northerners.

By collapsing all Northern health units into just two, it will force each to cover thousands of kilometres and hundreds of thousands of people, in communities with very different public health needs.

“Public health units operate in the community, delivering vaccination programs, inspecting drinking water supplies and stepping in when there’s an outbreak to identify, contain and stop the spread of illness and disease,” said Ms. Gelinas, in a release. “These callous cuts spread public health units thin, with less money to protect more people over a more vast territory.”

“Public health units are working behind the scenes every day to keep our families safe and healthy. Cutting their work puts people at risk,” said Ms. Gelinas. “Ford’s cutting Ontario’s 35 public health units and collapsing them into just 10. In Northern Ontario, the province’s scheme would leave a mere two public health units left to service all of Northern Ontario. Region nine would include Nipissing (part of Renfrew), Muskoka (part of Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit), North Bay Parry Sound, Sudbury, Algoma, Temiskaming and Porcupine. And region 10 would include Thunder Bay, Northwestern Health Unit, she added. 

As well as announcing the reduction in the number of public health units in the province, the government had also announced plans to “modernize public health” by changing the existing cost-sharing arrangement with municipal governments—that has some fearing it will mean downloading costs from Queen’s Park to local communities.

Currently, municipalities fund a minimum of 25 percent of public health services and the province funds the other 75 percent. The new funding arrangement sees the municipalities covering 30 percent as of April 1, 2019, 30 percent as of April, 1, 2020 and between 30 and 40 percent as of April 1, 2021.