With the province of Ontario pushing hard on the idea of merging local health units into larger entities, the boards of health for Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD), and Algoma Public Health (APH) are both considering how to approach the idea.
Sudbury's Health Unit appears ready to move in the merger direction, but it is not exactly a welcome idea in Sault Ste. Marie, the main city for the Algoma health unit.
It was in mid-November that PHSD issued a news release describing how the board of health had approved the 2024–2028 Strategic Plan, the budget for 2024, which included first steps in exploring mergers with other local public health units.
One week later in the Sault, the local board of health approved the idea of applying for provincial funding to explore the idea of a voluntary merger with the Sudbury health unit.
The Algoma board of health has voted to have a feasibility study into the merger but not everyone was agreeable. Sault mayor and board of health member Matthew Shoemaker voted against the idea.
Shoemaker told the board he was struggling with the end objective and wondered if the Sault and the Algoma District would have adequate representation on a larger regional board of health.
This follows the release of a Ministry of Health policy paper in August called Strengthening Public Health. As part of that initiative the province said it is ready to provide a three-year funding plan to local health units to address the urgent need for stabilization while change was underway. The province said it would support voluntary mergers by providing one-time funding for transition and stabilization costs and would review longer-term base funding needs.
The policy document mentions several times that the mergers are voluntary.
In a briefing note to the Sudbury board of health, PHSD CEO and medical officer of health Dr. Penny Sutcliffe said the timing was crucial.
"Given the tight timelines set by the province for merger proposals (March 2024) and the potential to access one-time funds to March 31, 2024 to conduct feasibility studies, preliminary Board direction is sought at this time," Sutcliffe wrote.
Her briefing note also asked the board to support the Sudbury health unit leadership in engaging with other health units across the north to have further discussions and to build on previous collaborations.
PHSD board chair René Lapierre agreed with the importance of acting quickly.
"With these rapid paced and transformative changes, the Board of Health and our skilled staff need to have the capacity to fully engage in creating the future of Ontario’s public health system while ensuring we continue to be accountable, transparent, and responsive to local needs,” said Lapierre. He said the decision to approve the idea of exploring mergers was a good one.
"These decisions mean we will have the strategic direction, resources, and roadmap to see Public Health through 2024 and ensure we emerge as a strong and effective new local public health agency,” Lapierre added.
Similar mergers are being explored in other parts of the North. The Porcupine Health Unit in Timmins is looking at merging with the Timiskaming Health Unit, which represents Kirkland Lake and Temiskaming Shores.. The North Bay Parry Sound district health unit has explored the idea of a merger with other local health units nearby also.
Len Gillis covers health care and mining for Sudbury.com.