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Durham health unit merging with three other agencies

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

Durham’s health department will be amalgamated with three others under a proposed plan by the province.

In its 2019 budget, the Ford government announced it would take Ontario’s 35 public health units and merge them into 10 regional planning groups.

Under the proposed plan, Durham would join with the Peterborough, Prince Edward-Hastings, and Kawartha-Haliburton-Pine Ridge health units.

The regional body would serve Durham, the City of Peterborough and Peterborough County, the City of Kawartha Lakes, and the counties of Northumberland, Haliburton, Prince Edward, and Hastings.

The proposed changes are set to take place in April 2020.

It is estimated this move will save the province approximately $200 million per year.

Dr. Robert Kyle, medical officer of health for Durham Region, said his department is aware of the boundary changes but it remains unclear what the full impact will be.

With little information, Kyle said it is far too early to say whether the merger is a good or bad idea.

“I suppose there are pros and cons to every idea,” Kyle noted.

He said in its current existence, Durham Health receives services such as IT, finance and human resources from the region for a nominal fee.

Under the new system, Kyle said, “We’d have to untangle ourselves from the region, and then get services from the regional entity.”

“We don’t really have the assets that we can contribute to a regional entity. There are real challenges in terms of pooling current assets,” he said.

It is also unclear how the 10 new regional health departments will be governed.

“The whole issue of executive leadership, what does it look like? Who is in charge?” he asks, adding it remains to be seen whether services that are currently provided locally will continue to be.

In terms of staffing, Kyle explains each health department has different collective bargaining agreements with employees.

These agreements would likely need to be renegotiated.

While cost savings have been identified as the driving force behind the government’s plans, Kyle has some serious doubts whether this goal will be achieved.

In his 30 years as a medical officer of health, he has overseen the merger of numerous paramedic departments in Durham Region.

“I can tell you, there were no savings there,” Kyle said.

He admits he was caught off guard when he learned about the proposed amalgamations.

The plans mirror those proposed by the previous Liberal government in 2017.

“It was panned universally by the entire public health community, not because people were trying to preserve their own situations, but you are talking massive interruptions for little gain over a long amount of time,” Kyle said.

Durham’s top doctor believes the status of public health in Ontario is the strongest it’s ever been, and wonders if the province’s plan are really needed.

“The disruption that lies ahead is unprecedented in my judgement,” he said.

But the larger issue in Kyle’s eyes are the cuts to public health, which equate to about $750 million over a three year period.

The timing of these measures – shortly after the region passed its own budget – has left the municipality with “limited opportunity” to absorb the cuts, he states.

Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, is extremely concerned about the province’s plans.

“There is no recommendation to do this that I’m aware of that in any way has measured the impact on public health or anything in the public interest,” Mehra told The Oshawa Express. “Public health is vitally important – the services they provide are hugely health promotional and preventable.”

Mehra states the impact of public health departments is evident by their role in addressing the outbreak of Ebola, SARS and the E.coli crisis in Walkerton almost two decades ago.

“We know more epidemics and pandemics are coming,” Mehra says.

Under the current system, the Durham Region Health Department provides services and programs to the region’s population of roughly 646,000 people according to the 2016 Census.

Under the government’s plans, the regional health department that will include Durham will serve more than 1 million people spanning east from the Bay of Quinte, west to Pickering, and north to county cottage in Haliburton.