The Eastern Ontario Health Unit’s Board of Health has issued a Position Statement laying out its concerns about the Ford government’s aggressive plan to restructure public health, warning that it could have significant long and short-term impacts on the local community.
The government made the surprise announcement in the recently released 2019 provincial budget, outlining its plan to cut the number of public health units in Ontario from 35 local health units to 10 larger regional entities over the next two years. It has also announced plans to slash provincial funding of public health by $200 million, offloading a significant portion of public health funding from the province to municipalities. The cut in provincial funding is effective immediately despite the fact that municipalities were given no advance warning, and have already planned and started spending their budgets for the current year.
The province has provided few details about the restructuring, leaving the EOHU and municipalities uncertain about how the changes will be implemented. A major concern is that while municipalities will be expected to pay more, they could have less decision-making power when it comes to how public health programs are delivered locally. Moving governance of public health services from the eastern counties to a broader regional area could reduce the capacity to address the unique public health needs of the eastern counties (serving rural populations, higher rates of chronic diseases and poverty, reduced access to primary healthcare). In a larger regionalized model, public health’s ability to respond quickly to local emergencies and health threats – such as disease outbreaks or flood emergencies – may also be negatively affected.
“Having a local presence with close ties to community partners and residents has ensured that the health unit is well-positioned to respond to local needs,” states Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, Medical Officer of Health. He adds that the EOHU provides a wide range of essential public health programs, including immunization clinics, infectious disease outbreak management (including the recent follow up of measles contacts), low-income dental clinics, well-baby programs for families who don’t have access to pediatricians or family physicians, water safety monitoring, inspections of local food premises and more. “We’re very concerned that moving to a larger regional model, combined with significant cuts to funding, could compromise the public health services that protect the health and safety of our region’s residents.”