Mergers of public health units in Ontario are back on the table, and that has Sudbury and Districts (PHSD) looking at a merger with its neighbour to the west, Algoma Public Health.
The chair of the board for PHSD, Rene Lapierre, said the government has softened its tone from 2019.
At that time, it revealed a plan to combine 35 public health units into 10 larger regional entities by 2021 as part of what it called a modernized approach to public health.
Soon after the announcement, the COVID-19 pandemic began and the legislation was shelved.
Lapierre said the issue has returned, with a bit of a gentler message.
“They’re giving us a heads-up and they’re able to provide us with funding if we choose to, on voluntary mergers,” he said. “So they asked health units across the province to look to their neighbours.”
The board of PHSD voted this week to ask the government for funding for a feasibility study to look at the pros and cons of a merger with Algoma Public Health.
Algoma’s board is facing a vote on the same thing this week, and Lapierre said both parties will have to be in agreement.
Lapierre said the board is taking steps proactively because members feel that mergers are inevitable.
“The government is starting off by saying we’re looking at people that want to voluntarily merge, but their goal is still to reduce the amount of public health,” he said. “So if their ultimate goal is to actually reduce it, we want to be part of the change instead of being told what to change.”
In a news release last August, the province announced that starting Jan. 1, 2024, the province will restore $47 million in provincial annual base funding for public health units.
The province is also providing local public health units an annual one per cent funding increase over the next three years so they can more effectively plan ahead and prepare.
“This will also allow time for the province to collaborate with municipalities on a longer-term sustainable funding agreement that will not put any additional financial burden on municipalities,” the news release said.
Algoma is the logical choice
Lapierre said the province is looking to health units to serve a population of at least 500,000, although he said the rural, sparsely populated nature of the north is hindering that goal.
He said a merger with Algoma would reach around 350,000 people, but would still be a large area for inspectors and nurses to travel to do their jobs.
In its August news release, the Ministry of Health explained a merger of public health units was “to reduce overlap of services and focus resources on improving people’s access to programs and services close to home.”
Lapierre said he hopes if a feasibility study finds ways to make services more efficient, any savings would be reinvested into the health unit.
But he said he doesn’t see where there is a lot to streamline except perhaps in information technology or human resources.
In the short term, Lapierre is waiting for Algoma’s board to vote so they can apply to the province for money for a feasibility study which could start as early as next January.