File photo by Alec Ross, BlackburnNews.com

Five local health units to amalgamate

The Middlesex London Health Unit (MLHU) will be part of a mega-merger that will see five existing health units from Woodstock to Windsor amalgamated.

Under proposed new boundaries by the Ford government, the MLHU, Southwestern Public Health, Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, Chatham-Kent Public Health Unit, and Lambton Public Health Unit will become a single regional public health unit.

“We knew that there would be expansion across southwestern Ontario,” said Dr. Chris Mackie, the medical officer of health for Middlesex-London. “Certainly, we thought that our neighbours to the north – Huron, Perth, Grey-Bruce – would be in the same region as us so that was a bit of a surprise, but the scale of the region is not a surprise.”

Currently, the MLHU serves a population of roughly 460,000. The new regional health unit would serve approximately 1.3 million people. The exact look and makeup of the new mega public health entity’s board has not been determined, but Mackie believes it would be vital to have representation from each municipality as well as a representative from the province.

“Connections with the community are so important for public health work,” said Mackie. “Provincial representation has a different level of analysis and thinking, so that is the ideal I see.”

The Ontario government announced plans in its spring budget to cut the number of public health units across the province from 35 to 10 by 2020-2021. A $200-million provincial funding reduction would also be implemented over the next few years.

“We are going to have on the one hand budget pressures, trying to keep within the new, approved funding envelopes. At the same time, our staffers are receiving cost of living increases. That will put pressure and it will mean some hard decisions will have to be made about which services continue and which don’t,” said Mackie. “The other challenge will be keeping staff morale up. In public health, our budget is 80 per cent staff and making sure that people are feeling well supported, that they have the tools they need, that they have the systems and supports in place to do their jobs well. That is a crucial challenge that we will be keeping an eye on.”

According to Mackie, the health units recently learned of the proposed new boundaries, the specifics of which have not been confirmed by the province. However, public consultations are expected to be held over the summer, legislation passed in the fall, with changes being implemented by April 2020.

“While the government will bring forward proposals, the specific boundaries of the new regional health units will be finalized in consultation with municipalities through technical working groups, which we expect to launch shortly,” said Hayley Chazan, spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott. “Through these technical working groups, we will also work with our municipal partners to design governance and delivery models that protect and preserve the voice of all municipalities.”

Chazen added work will be done to ensure all municipalities and health units are prepared for the inevitable consolidation.