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Concerns over impact of merging southwestern Ontario health units
By this fall the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit will be part of a larger, regional entity, comprised of the Chatham-Kent, Southwestern, Lambton and Middlesex-London health units.
The proposed new service area spans 14,500 square kilometres and is responsible for meeting the needs of nearly 1.3-million residents.
“The name is probably the least of our concerns at this time," says Windsor-Essex County Health Unit CEO Teresa Marentette.
Marentette says it's too early to know the impact on the 240 staff in Windsor, Essex and Leamington or, the impact on service levels.
The health units cover a range of issues, from West Nile Virus to blacklegged ticks, migrant farm inspections and monitoring of nearly a dozen beaches.
“We would want to make sure that the needs of people in Windsor- Essex County are met,” says Marentette. “Whether there's a regional model or not, the people of Windsor-Essex County have unique public health needs."
The chair of Chatham-Kent's Health Board Joe Faas shares those concerns.
“By merging different health units and mandating that they report to one regional Board of Health, it weakens their overall ability to meet local needs in a way that our community requires those needs to be met,” says Faas. “Existing complications around things like transportation and access could be magnified when the service area is expanded so significantly in such a short period of time.”
Ontario's Health Minister Christine Elliott says local units will still be able to meet the needs of residents.
"What we want to do with the operations overall is allow the local units to make decisions and concentrate on the local issues within their geographic areas," says Elliott.
But that's not the only issue to contend with.
The province is downloading costs to municipalities, which will now fund 40 per cent of the public health budget, up from 30.
"We'll be watching with great interest here, because it will have a budget impact on each municipality,” says Windsor mayor Drew Dilkens.
Exactly how much, they don't know.
Dilkens says whatever the cost, the city will either have to take on debt, dip into reserves or cut programs.
He suggests the health board look carefully at the programs it offers as well.
"Now is the time for a review to make sure the programs and services are appropriate that there are no efficiencies that can be found to make sure it's not a direct pass onto municipal taxpayers,"says Dilkens.
Marentette says they will look at every program and they will look at them again.
Elliott insists the health units will continue to offer core services.
“In terms of what is essential, vaccinations, we want to ensure all the units continue to do that work,” says Elliott. “Breakfast programs, special needs. Those are the essential priorities."