May 16, 2019 5:01 pm

Simcoe Muskoka health unit urges districts remain together in public health entity restructuring

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit is urging the province to keep Simcoe and Muskoka in the same entity with York Region when the province reduces its number of health units next year.

Nick Westoll / File / Global News

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit is urging the province to keep Simcoe County and the District of Muskoka in the same entity with York Region when the province reduces its number of health units from 35 to 10.

This week it was announced that Simcoe County will merge with York Region’s health unit and Muskoka will join with a number of northeastern Ontario communities, effective April 1, 2020.

READ MORE: Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit to disband

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“We’re concerned about a few things,” said Charles Gardner, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s medical officer of health. “If we split like that, then the programs being offered in Muskoka would be undermined.”

According to Gardner, the programs in Muskoka are supported by the operations in Simcoe.

“They would be joining to the north, but the north would be a very sparsely populated and massive territory, and it’s probable that they wouldn’t get the same kind of support as they would by staying with Simcoe,” Gardner said.

WATCH: Health officials speak out after potential plans to merge several eastern Ontario health units into one

The northeastern Ontario communities Muskoka is set to merge with are North Bay, Parry Sound, Sudbury, Algoma, Timiskaming, Porcupine and a portion of Renfrew, an area that extends to James Bay.

“It’ll take a lot more resources, a lot more time and probably transitional costs than if we stayed whole,” Gardner added.

Previously, there was discussion as to whether municipalities’ levies would be increased, which would help fund the health unit, Gardner said, but it was decided that this would not be the case.

READ MORE: Ontario budget proposes consolidating 35 public health units into 10 regional entities

“We do have some reserve funds we can draw on if we need to,” he added. “It may also come down to not filling positions that are vacated. But if that happens, you start to have a loss of service.”

Some possible examples of service reduction, Gardner said, could include increased wait times or reduced compliance with the health unit’s requirements for restaurant inspection enforcement.

“Splitting the operations between Simcoe and Muskoka at the same time as mergers both with York and six other health units to the north will be overwhelming in its complexity,” Anita Dubeau, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s board of health chair, said in a statement.

READ MORE: Kingston and Ottawa city officials concerned about proposed expansion of local health unit

Gardner points to the fact that the province also wants the health unit to start up a new low-income seniors oral hygiene program.

“At the same time that we’re getting ready to split and merge and to manage potential funding reduction for our programs, we’re getting new money for an entirely new program that we’re going to have to have up and running,” he said.

READ MORE: Hamilton’s public health unit expected to disappear with province’s plan to amalgamate regional boards

As part of Ontario’s 2019 budget, announced in April, the province said it would reduce the current 35 health units to 10 public health entities.

According to the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, the province has indicated that it’s willing to accept feedback on the boundary changes.

“It’s far more complex for us to break ourselves, and then carry out a merger to the north and then to the south, than it would be if we stayed whole and just worked with York Region,” Gardner finished.

WATCH: Ontario government wants to consolidate public health units into regional boards of health

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