Sudbury's health unit remains in the dark about its future

Dr. Penny Sutcliffe jpg, SU

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Changes are on the horizon at Public Health Sudbury and Districts.

Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, Sudbury’s medical officer of health and PHSD’s CEO, said Thursday during the monthly board meeting that changes recently announced by the Conservative government at Queens Park mean big changes to the way public health will be delivered in the north.

It is still early days, so Sutcliffe does not know yet how staff will be impacted at PHSD; nor does she know where the new and bigger health unit will be located, but she said staff is ready to share their expertise.

“We really are rolling up our sleeves to provide the best advice possible that we can for an effective public health system in the northeast,” she said.

There are currently 35 public health units, but that number will be squeezed to just 10 following announcements last month by the Ford government. Sudbury will fall within region nine, which will include health units based in Nipissing, Muskoka, North Bay, Parry Sound, Algoma, Timiskaming and Porcupine.

France Gelinas, the NDP’s health critic, said earlier this week that Doug Ford’s scheme to cut the number of northern health units to just two (Thunder Bay will be included in region 10) is dangerous to the health and safety of northerners.

By collapsing northern health units into just two, the Conservative government will force each to cover thousands of kilometres and hundreds of thousands of people in communities with very different public health needs.

“Public health units operate in community, delivering vaccination programs, inspecting drinking water supplies and stepping in when there’s an outbreak to identify, contain and stop the spread of illness and disease,” Gelinas said. “These callous cuts spread public health units thin — with less money to protect more people over a more vast territory. Public health units are working behind the scenes every day to keep our families safe and healthy. Cutting their work puts people at risk.”

Sutcliffe took a measured approach at Thursday’s meeting of the board of health. She said part of her job will be to determine how PHSD will shift its mandate and deliver programs to such a vast populace spread out over a large geographic region.

Sutcliffe said the local board of health will advocate that the Muskoka health unit remain an intact body or combine with York Region. Populations in northern Ontario have different needs than their more southern counterparts, she said.

“What we’re trying to do now with our colleagues across the northeast is, when there is a new public health agency, what are the functions of that? What kind of work needs to be done to meet the health needs of the northeast?” she said. “But we don’t have that information right now.”

But Sutcliffe said it is clear “we’re going to have to do things differently.” There will be fewer resources across northeastern Ontario, but she said there is an opportunity for staff to become more resourceful and efficient. For example, staff may look into delivering some of their programming digitally.

“We all have different ways of doing things, different cultures in our organizations, but that’s part of the diversity and richness of our system, in that we can learn from each other,” she said. “But I’m not underestimating the amount of work that’ll be involved.”

Sutcliffe said PHSD is assuming the province will adopt a 70/30 split, which means Queens Park will pay 70 per cent of all board-approved budgets. She said that translates into a $1.2 million drop in provincial funding, compared to 2018 levels. But Sutcliffe said only about half that amount will be gone from 2019 spreadsheets. PHSD should know more in June. The final legislation for these 10 new health units will not be finalized until next April.

Sutcliffe said PHSD is actually in a better position than many other health units. The local organization actually began conversations with neighbouring health units in 2017. It is top of mind for staff and demands attention, she noted.

There is no longer a choice – health units must learn to work together, she said.

“We are stronger together than apart,” Sutcliffe said. “This will be one public health entity that will service all of northeastern Ontario.”

mkkeown@postmedia.com

Twitter: @marykkeown

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