Kitchener-Waterloo

Waterloo region health merger will create Ontario's largest regional unit

The province is cutting the number of health units from 35 to 10. As part of that, Waterloo region could be merged with Halton, Peel, and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health to form a new public health planning area.

Ministry of Health says specific boundaries will be finalized after consultations

A new planning area for health proposed by the provincial government would see Waterloo region join Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, Halton region and Peel region. That would serve 2.75 million people and would be the largest public health planning area in the province. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Waterloo region may be grouped with Halton, Peel and Wellington, Guelph and Dufferin as part of a new public health planning area, officials have confirmed.

The province has indicated it will take the 35 individual health units in the province and create 10 planning groups. The province hopes it will be able to save $200 million annually with the change.

Region of Waterloo Chair Karen Redman said they learned of the decision in the provincial budget and received some information just before Easter.

The details about which municipalities will make up the planning areas came from the province on Friday.

The change will see the new planning area covering Waterloo region, Halton, Peel, Wellington, Guelph and Dufferin serve 2.94 million people.

It will be the largest planning area per person served in the province, slightly above 2.92 million in Toronto.

Changes are set to come into effect in April 2020.

Redman called the change a "fundamental restructuring."

"What concerns me about this is the fact that they think, number one, they're going to get $200 million savings, you need to ask where. It can't just be out of back channel organizations and more efficiency," Redman said.

"The second part is it's really about service delivery, governance, accountability and responsiveness and I worry that being part of that huge catchment area, we're now going to feel like we're in competition with other public health delivery services rather than making sure that we have the service that Waterloo region residents have come to count on."

Could increase access to resources

Chuck Ferguson, manager of communications for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, said their medical officer of health was informed of the changes on Friday, and staff were told on Monday.

He said they're not sure how things will play out, but said the province has indicated there will be consultations with the municipalities and health units in the near future about how to make the change.

"We also know there's a commitment to deliver public health services at a local level as well, so there will still be a presence at all the areas where public health is now operating," Ferguson said.

He said there will be challenges, but they also see opportunities.

He said the area may be able to access a new set of resources they weren't able to before with an amalgamation of public health units.

"We really have to wait for the legislation to understand exactly the model that we'll be moving into," he said.

Boundaries to be finalized 

Hayley Chazan, press secretary for Health Minister Christine Elliott, said the province may still make changes to the plan.

"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," she said in an emailed statement.

She said the province is in "direct contact" with all public health units to provide information and 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. In doing so, we will ensure that public health investments better meet the needs of local communities," Chazan said.

Other areas impacted include seeing Hamilton merge with Niagara, Brant and Haldimand-Norfolk, as well as London with Windsor, Chatham-Kent, Lambton, and Southwestern Public Health to serve 1.3 million people.

'Tunnel vision for immediate savings': Schreiner

The news of the new planning area is of concern to Guelph MPP and Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner.

In a press release, Schreiner said he's worried about whether Mississauga and Brampton "are appropriate partners" for Guelph, Wellington and Waterloo.

"Public health needs in the Guelph region are different than those in the GTA," Schreiner wrote.

"I am worried the government is plowing ahead with a centralization plan without consideration for local decision making or how these changes affect people's health in our region," he added.

"Tunnel vision for immediate savings cannot put local service delivery at risk."

Redman says the region's public health unit has existed in its current form since 1975.

"I think it's served us well," she said.

She says she looks forward to speaking up for the region in the provincial consultations.

"We really hope that we're able to bring our concerns and change the governance model or impact it to at least know that we have the voice and needs of Waterloo region at that planning table," she said.

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