Kingston and Ottawa city officials concerned about proposed expansion of local health unit

The province's proposed expansion of Ottawa Public Health and its consolidation with other health units across eastern Ontario have municipal officials in Kingston concerned.

The chair of the Ottawa Public Health board has concerns about the potential effects that residents in municipalities across eastern Ontario could face due to the provincial government’s proposed expansion of the health unit.

According to chair Keith Egli, the unit is expected to expand to cover municipalities in eastern Ontario from Kingston all the way to the Quebec border.

The Ontario government plans to implement the change by this time next year, says Egli, adding that he has concerns about the plan considering how large the operation is slated to be and how many details are still up in the air.

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“It’s not clear right now if the existing structure will remain,” said Egli. “There’s a lot of moving parts that need to be addressed in a short amount of time.”

According to Egli, Ottawa Public Health currently serves around a million people in the Ottawa area. That number could expand to 1.6 million people, and the area served could expand up to 29,000 square kilometres with the addition of the other municipalities, including Prescott-Russell, Cornwall, Smiths Falls and the second-largest health unit in eastern Ontario — Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington Public Health.

Chief medical officer and CEO of Kingston Frontenac Lennox and Addington Public Health Kieran Moore has a lot of the same concerns when it comes to the area the organization will have to cover.

“There are some concerns that this a very big region with a large population and by a regional entity it may be hard to manage that large of geography,” said Moore.

With the large coverage area, it’s not clear what the governing body for the new health unit would look like or where it would meet. And with provincial funding for health units set to potentially decrease, Egli believes the unit will undoubtedly be financially stretched.

“There’s a lot of things we need answers to. The province says there will be consultation, and I hope it’s very robust,” said Egli.

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A spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said that the ministry is currently in direct contact with the affected health units to answer any questions and that the province plans to implement working groups to help with the restructuring.

“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, a spokesperson for the health minister.

“In the meantime, we are in direct contact with all public health units to provide information about our modernization plan and to answer questions. 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.”

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It is unclear how many jobs could be affected by this proposal and whether or not the existing structures will remain in place, but Chazan says the ministry will make sure that municipalities are ready for the change.

“While we have been clear that there will be consolidation, we cannot confirm specifics at this time. Through our collaboration, we will ensure that all municipalities and public health units are prepared for consolidation when it occurs,” Chazan said.

As for the smaller communities that could be affected, some, like Frontenac Islands Township mayor and chair of his municipality’s public health board Denis Doyle believe that by merging with Ottawa would end up costing the taxpayers more money as they would have to buy in to a larger health unit.

“Ottawa is not our favourite area to join,” said Doyle who is concerned that moving operations to Ottawa will cost taxpayers money.

He also says the city of Ottawa currently provides corporate support, human resources and free rent to their public health unit. He wonders if after the merger, smaller communities will be served as well as Ottawa, especially considering the city itself will be directly funding some operations at the consolidated public health unit.

A similar merger is slated to occur in the Guelph-Waterloo area as the government begins to follow through on its plan to reduce the number of health units in the province to 10.

With files from Alex Mazur

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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