Ontario has proposed merging Hastings Prince Edward Public Health with three health units to the west.
While officials said there’s no confirmed plan and much discussion ahead, the area’s medical officer of health said local services must be maintained.
Both Bay of Quinte MPP Todd Smith and Dr. Piotr Oglaza, Hastings and Prince Edward Counties’ medical officer of health, said the possible merger is merely a starting point.
“Nothing has been set in stone,” Smith told The Intelligencer Friday in a telephone interview.
“We’re not rushing into a decision on this but we know there are efficiencies to be found in public health.”
The proposal suggests merging the Belleville-based health unit with Peterborough Public Health, Whitby-based Durham Region Health Department and the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit.
Oglaza said the grouping was provided by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care as “a starting point for a discussion as to what the new modernized public health system could look like. Local staff received the news in a May 6 teleconference with ministry staff. He said all health units had similar teleconferences recently.
“There’s going to be extensive consultation happening,” he said.
But Oglaza said the health unit has long-standing relationships with those of Kingston, Leeds-Grenville and Lanark.
“This takes us out of that existing partnership and existing flow of patients,” Oglaza said. “That all has to be taken into account.
Those ties predate the creation of the South East Local Health Integration Network, he said. Those health units are all in the South East LHIN; the ones proposed for the merger with Hastings Prince Edward are not.
“Whether the LHINs are going to be around or not, it doesn’t change the fact that we are part of eastern Ontario.”
Smith said the government wants to “get this right.”
“There’s still lots of time to negotiate with neighbours to the east and to the west,” he said.
“Hastings Prince Edward has more in common with our neighbours to the east … but I’m not going to pre-position how this is going to turn out.”
He said he was not aware of any population thresholds for the formations of new public health agencies.
Oglaza said he believes there’s a chance for input but is also focused on ensuring local connections and services are preserved.
“The ministry and the province, they’re willing to work with us and make the changes that are sensible and reflect the needs of the population that we serve,” he said. “I got a sense that the ministry is listening and we’re going to continue the conversation.
“We will have to have local presence. As far as what the service delivery model will look like… it will be up to the new entity’s board.”
Oglaza said the new organizations, whatever their makeup, are to be in place by April 1.
“It’s really hard to say what that new direction’s going to look like.
“I’m hopeful there will be some benefits.”
New directives from the province, including changes to funding, have in recent weeks resulted in alarm among local councils and boards of public agencies. Concern has been cited by municipalities, the board of health, Belleville Police Services Board, Hastings County council and the Community Advocacy and Legal Centre, and others. They cite worries about funding reductions being announced after municipal budgets have been set; lack of consultation; and potential service reductions.
Smith, who is the Progressive Conservative government’s house leader and the minister of economic development, job creation and trade, said the government is upholding its mandate to cut spending.
“We committed in the election last year that we were going to find efficiencies across government and we’re committed to doing that,” he said, adding legislators believe that can be done across all sectors.
He said it’s “a bit disturbing” when municipalities speak of raising taxes in order to compensate for Ontario’s actions.
“We don’t believe we should be going back to the taxpayers,” he said. Smith said the province has done an unprecedented “line-by-line audit” of its budget and “we believe municipalities should be looking at their expenditures, too.”
Some local municipal leaders have said the province should provide transition funding rather than forcing their councils to adjust mid-year. Smith made no such promise.
“The province doesn’t have a whole lot of money,” he said, and the plan is to “find four cents on every dollar in efficiencies” to get the “best value” for Ontario’s spending.
As for health units, Oglaza said more details will be discussed at the health board’s June 5 meeting in Belleville.