Local health boards look to merge for better service

By James Matthews, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit (HKPR District Health Unit) and Peterborough Public Health (PPH) boards of health are going to look into how their communities will be impacted by a merger.

In August 2023, the Ministry of Health announced plans to strengthen the public health sector by offering one-time funding, resources, and supports to local public health agencies that decide to voluntarily merge.

The province has indicated as part of one-time funding mergers would need to be implemented by Jan. 1, 2025.

In 2019, PPH and HKPR District Health Unit explored opportunities for shared service delivery in response to efforts by the provincial government to reduce the number of local public health agencies.

Completing a pre-assessment study marks the first step towards understanding how the current proposal would affect delivery of public health programming and emergency response capacity locally. 

“Public health’s primary reason for being is to improve the overall standard of health in the community being served,” said David Marshall, the HKPR District Health Unit’s board chairperson.

“Doing so goes a long way to relieve the tremendous strain currently being borne by our downstream health sector and those people working within it. If there is a way to strengthen our ability to improve these health standards, it is our responsibility to investigate it.”

The provincial pre-assessment process is anticipated to take place over several months, with a decision to follow early next year.

At the end of the pre-assessment, the PPH and HKPR District Health Unit boards of health will decide whether to proceed with a voluntary merger. Both PPH and HKPR District Health Units will continue to operate independently during the pre-assessment period.

“Our ultimate goal is to protect and promote health in the communities we serve while ensuring a strong voice in public health for municipalities and First Nations,” said Kathryn Wilson, chairperson at Peterborough Public Health’s board of directors.

“If a voluntary merger offers a chance to strengthen public health and resolve some of the long-standing capacity challenges facing the sector, then it is an opportunity worth exploring.”

Efforts to beef up public health services are about to begin on another front other than board mergers.

Starting Jan. 1, the province will restore $47 million in provincial annual base funding for public health units, which is the level previously provided under a provincial-municipal cost-share ratio with the province kicking in 75 per cent of the purse and municipalities contributing the remaining 25 per cent.

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.

Health Minister Sylvia Jones said 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.

“Building a stronger public health system, with more convenient and consistent access to public health services, is one more way our government is connecting people in Ontario to health care closer to home,” Jones said.

“The pandemic showed that we need a stronger public health system and this increased funding will help to create a more connected public health system that will support Ontario communities for years to come.”

The province will also work with its partners to refine and clarify the roles of local public health units, to reduce overlap of services, and focus resources on improving people’s access to programs and services close to home.

“One-time funding, resources and supports will be offered to local public health agencies that voluntarily merge to streamline and reinvest back into expanding programs and services,” Jones said.