Hamilton awaits the fate of its public health unit after budget seems to promise mergers

Local officials are scratching their heads over the fate of Hamilton's public health unit after a provincial budget pledge to reduce the number of units from 35 to 10.

The issue is important to Hamilton, with its child poverty, opioid crisis and concerns about air quality

"It’s very, very light on details, and this public health thing is an example," says Andrea Horwath. (Pierre-Olivier Bernatchez/CBC)

Local officials are scratching their heads over the fate of Hamilton's public health unit after a provincial budget pledge to reduce the number from 35 to 10.

In Thursday's budget, Premier Doug Ford's government said it would cut the number of local health units by 25 over two years. That comes alongside an annual funding reduction of $200 million.

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health, only issued a short email statement about it Friday. But the message was clear — she doesn't know much more about it than anyone else.

"At present, we do not have further details about the changes to local public health units beyond the information contained in the budget announcement," she said. "Moving forward, we will work with the provincial government to better understand their vision."

Andrea Horwath, Hamilton Centre NDP MPP and official opposition leader, wants to know more too. Hamilton has pressing issues around poverty, opioid addiction, air quality and climate change. So this is important.

Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli presents the 2019 budget as Premier Doug Ford looks on at the legislature in Toronto on April 11. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

"We know here in Hamilton, our public health unit has done a lot of work in our lowest income neighbourhoods," she said. "Some really unique programs have come out of public health."

"It might mean a merger. It might mean complete changes of mandate."

The budget, she said, was "very, very light on details, and this public health thing is an example."

'Modernizing the way public health units are organized'

The questions come after a section in Thursday's budget document called "modernizing Ontario's public health units." 

Ontario has 35 public health units, it says, but "the current structure of Ontario's public health units does not allow for consistent service delivery, could be better coordinated with the broader system and better aligned with current government priorities."

(Rob Easton/CBC)

The province, it says, is "modernizing the way public health units are organized, allowing for a focus on Ontario's residents, broader municipal engagement, more efficient service delivery, better alignment with the health care system, and more effective staff recruitment and retention to improve public health promotion and prevention."

It promises to "establish 10 regional public health entities and 10 new regional boards of health with one common governance model by 2020–21."

Donna Skelly, PC MPP for Flamborough-Glanbrook, said her government's first budget is "an even-handed approach to balancing the budget" while "protecting public health care and education."

'Hard to know what the details are'

She said Thursday that the public health section is more about Local Health Integrated Networks (LHINs). She didn't think it would impact Hamilton's public health unit.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger chairs Hamilton's board of health, which is comprised of all of city council. He didn't know what to make of the section either.

"It's hard to know from where we sit municipally," he said. "It's hard to know what the details are until they spell out what efficiencies they're going to be looking at."

Overall, the public health funding cut means an across-the-province reduction of 27 per cent, from $743 million.

The budget also mentioned developing a regional strategy for Ontario laboratories to "create greater efficiencies across the system and reduce the number of laboratories."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca


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