Several eastern Ontario public health units are proposing that they be grouped together when the province chooses to amalgamate rather than join Ottawa’s health unit.
There are currently 35 public health units across Ontario, but due to extreme budget cuts proposed by the provincial government, there are plans to join many of those units, creating 10 larger regional bodies to oversee health care in the province.
In mid-May, health units from Kingston up to the Quebec border learned that they could possibly be absorbed by Ottawa Public Health by spring of 2020.
At the Kingston regional board of health meeting on Wednesday, a letter penned by Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington Public Health; Eastern Ontario Public Health; Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit and Hastings Prince Edward Public Health proposed that the four independent units merge together rather than simply falling under the Ottawa unit.
Denis Doyle, mayor of Frontenac Islands and chair of the Kingston board of health, says joining forces locally would make more sense for all involved.
“We work very, very closely with Belleville, Hastings and Prince Edward County area. They were put in with a health unit to the west — Durham Region, I believe — so that’s not a very good fit for them,” Doyle said.
The letter suggests that instead of Kingston being absorbed by Ottawa, the Renfrew area should join forces with the capital region.
“Geographically, it doesn’t make sense,” said Ian Arthur, NDP MPP for Kingston and the Islands, about Ottawa overseeing most of eastern Ontario. “There’s different needs (that) the community the size of Ottawa has versus a community the size of Kingston and the surrounding area.”
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said the announcement of the possible mergers by the province have left public health units, including his own, “in complete chaos,” and that he was aware that certain health units are fighting the proposed merger.
Watson continued, saying the province was making decisions without municipalities in mind.
You all recall the premier was very, very clear in the last election — no cuts to health care. Public health is health care and he is cutting health care, and we need to stand up and say, ‘We understand you have fiscal challenges, but you have to co-operate with other levels of government,” Watson said from Ottawa’s city hall on Wednesday.
The letter brought up at the board of health meeting also expressed anxiety about the fact that Ottawa’s public health unit is partly municipally funded, which means many of the administrative staff making decisions for other regions would be at the mercy of the politics of Ottawa rather than operating independently.
Arthur says the loss of this regional control is concerning.
“We need a public health unit that’s adaptive and responsive to the community needs, and running that from Ottawa, I think we’re going to lose a lot of that and I think that’s quite dangerous,” Arthur said.
The government of Ontario has yet to officially delineate the boundaries of the 10 new public health units so the four regional organizations hope they may be able to sway the province with their proposal.
Dr. Kieran Moore, CEO of Kingston’s public health unit and the city’s chief medical officer, was not available for comment because he was in consultations discussing next steps for the letter.
— More information to come.