An Ontario government plan to merge the province’s 35 public health units into 10 new agencies is on hold, and the Medical Officer of Health for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU) is pleased about that.
Dr. Paul Roumeliotis said the province’s decision is based on the negative reaction to the government’s announcement, which was made without any consultation. He said the pause on amalgamations allows for further consultation at the local level and essentially means a restart to the process of finding ways to make public health services more efficient.
Roumeliotis said that Health Minister Christine Elliott has created a new consultation process on the future of health units and paramedic services, which the government has also expressed interest in amalgamating. He said municipalities will be part of the process because of their role in providing some of the operating costs for public health units and the possibility that some of the costs currently paid for by the province could be downloaded to municipalities.
The head of the new consultation process is Jim Pine, who is also the Chief Administrative Officer of the County of Hastings in Belleville.
Roumeliotis said Pine will be addressing how health units could better collaborate and share services, especially among smaller agencies, which could include some mergers. He said there is an overall desire to decrease the inequity of services and programming among the different public health agencies across Ontario. For example, the health units in Huron and Perth counties in southwestern Ontario are already merging for similar reasons, notwithstanding anything to do with recent initiatives by the provincial government.
Due to the pause announced by the government, Roumeliotis does not foresee any changes to health unit boundaries in 2020.
“2020 is going to be stable for us,” he said.
Under the province’s original plan, the EOHU would have become part of a large agency that was to include territory approximately from Renfrew and Leeds and Grenville Counties east to the Québec boundary. Roumeliotis called the plan to reduce the number of health units from 35 to 10 “arbitrary.”
“This never changed our overall budget,” said Roumeliotis, but he did say that the municipal share of the health unit budget has increased from 25 per cent to 30 per cent.
According to the current 2020 draft budget for the United Counties of Prescott and Russell, the counties will spend 23 per cent more on public health expenses in the year ahead than in 2019. The 2019 public health budget was $1,425,000 and it is $1,752,800 for 2020, an increase of $327,800.
Roumeliotis said the pause on amalgamation also ensures some labour relations stability at the EOHU. He said that a quickly organized merger with neighbouring agencies would likely have led to a complete renegotiation of all of the various union agreements. The EOHU has approximately 185 employees currently.