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UPDATED: Thunder Bay and Northwestern Health Units to be merged

Consolidation is expected to be completed within a year
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TORONTO — Opposition health critic France Gelinas has condemned the Ford government's plan to reduce the number of health units across Ontario, describing the move as "dangerous" for the health and safety of northerners.

The plan includes consolidating the Thunder Bay and Kenora-based Northwestern Health Units.

Details have not yet been disclosed by the government, but in the legislature Tuesday morning, the NDP critic also said several health units in northeastern Ontario will be merged into a single agency.

Last month, the government announced it would replace 35 existing health units with just 10.

Gelinas said collapsing nine northern units into just two will force them to cover "thousands of kilometres and hundreds of thousands of people in communities with very different public health needs."

She called the changes "callous," saying they will result in less money being spent on public health programs.

Thunder Bay District Health Unit's medical officer of health, Dr. Janet DeMille, said health ministry officials have told TBDHU the restructuring will be completed by April 2020.

Local consultations are promised, but DeMille says creating one entity for the northwest raises concerns.

"Public health is very local. We're linked to municipalities. If you combine too many of them under one, or the areas are too big, then you tend to lose that local connection," she said.

DeMille noted that boards of health are made up largely of councillors and mayors, and that municipalities are responsible for public health. 

The new plan, she said, "will really water down the representation," and many communities in the region will have no seat on the board.

DeMille is also apprehensive about the government's plan to change the way public health is funded, and pass some costs down to municipalities.

"That is quite concerning. We are still getting the detail to understand the implications," she said.

Her views were echoed by Dr. Kit Young Hoon, her counterpart at the Northwestern Health Unit.

Young Hoon said she's worried that combining the health units to reduce costs may result in reduced services to smaller communities.

"To be effective we need strong local connections, with staff who live there and understand the communities," she said.

Young Hoon is also skeptical that merging health units will result in lower back-office efficiences, saying the Northwestern Health Unit is already "very lean" in terms of administrative staff.

The press secretary for Health and Long-Term Care Minister Christine Elliott told Tbnewswatch "the specific boundaries of the new regional health units will be finalized in consultation with municipalities through working groups which we expect to launch shortly."

In a statement, Hayley Chazan said technical working groups will work with communities to design delivery models "that protect and preserve the voice of all municipalities."

Chazan said the plan will ultimately enable "a better matching of public health needs with local realities."




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