Reductions to public health announced in provincial budget

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SUDBURY—The provincial government’s budget of Thursday, April 11, announced a plan to massively change how public health services are structured in Ontario and drastically reduce funding. The province announced that, in 2019/20, the provincial/municipal cost-shared funding will be readjusted and the 35 existing public health units and 35 boards of health will be dissolved—and 10 new much larger regional entities with boards will be established by 2020/2021. To date, the geographic service boundaries of these entities are have not been communicated.

“Many questions remain and the full scope, financial details and specific timelines for these changes have yet to be communicated, but we anticipate the impact will be immense,” said Rene Lapierre, chair of the Board of Health for Public Health Sudbury and Districts in a release Tuesday afternoon. “Locally, we are working to understand the implications and communicate to staff and the community what we know so far.”

“We are mobilizing within the northeast and are working with our four neighbouring public health units to get ready for change,” said Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, Sudbury and Districts Medical Officer of Health. “We have had a Northeastern Collaborative Shared Services Project underway and it is not adjusting its focus on how together we can shape the restructuring of the public health system across the region. My goal is that we are an early adopter and figure out how best to serve the public health needs of people in the Northeast—all within a context of one new organization and severely constrained resources.”

Effective immediately, Public Health Sudbury and Districts has implemented several strategies in response to the provincial budget. These include a hiring freeze and the cancellation of all non-essential spending. “Public health programs and services are essential to the health of local communities,” said Dr. Sutcliffe. “We will continue to offer the full scope per the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care’s Ontario Public Health Standards, without interruption, and for as long as possible.”

Dr. Sutcliffe told the Recorder, “the provincial funding cuts in the budget in the amount of $200 million that are to be achieved across the local public health system by the fiscal year 2021/22 represents a potential reduction in provincial grants for cost-shared programs of up to 27 percent. That figure represents between 1,800-2,000 job losses across the sector. It’s a massive change,” she said. “Eighty percent of our budget is in people, (so a reduction-job losses) impacts services and the way we deliver programs and services,” said Dr. Sutcliffe. “We will work with our other Northeast Ontario colleagues on how we can make this work together-and make recommendations on how we can best serve the needs of residents of our Northeast region.”

The key role of public health is to bridge support and create community collaboration within the health sector and well beyond. The work of public health is foundational to community health by seeking to amplify the health potential of decisions made in all sectors, such as education, transportation, municipal, social services, etc. Direct services are delivered to people in addition to collaborative work to ensure that community decisions are informed by a health lens.

The Northeastern Collaborative Shared Services Project includes Algoma Public Health, North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit, Porcupine Health Unit, Public Health Sudbury and Districts, and the Timiskaming Health Unit.