Overtime costs piling up for Ottawa Public Health

All the overtime worked because of the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a $280,000 deficit for the city's public health agency in the first three months of 2020.

OPH already running $280k deficit because of COVID-19

Medical staff prepare for the opening of a COVID-19 assessment centre at the Brewer Arena in March. Ottawa Public Health is facing a major deficit in 2020 due to the pandemic, mostly because of all the overtime hours being worked. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa's public health unit could be millions of dollars in the red by the end of the year, despite an influx of cash from the Ontario government, raising questions about how public health agencies should be funded.

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is running a deficit of $280,000 due to COVID-19-related costs, according to figures for the first quarter of 2020 released by the City of Ottawa. 

Most of the extra costs come down to overtime hours worked because of the pandemic, said Coun. Keith Egli, who chairs the Ottawa Board of Health.

If the pandemic stretches on for many more months, Egli said that could mean OPH finishes the year with a much larger deficit — possibly in the millions of dollars.

"We're about halfway through the year.  If we continue to trend downwards in the number of cases, then we're likely going to be spending less money," Egli said.

"[But] if in the fall we get a spike ... then we're going to see more money being spent."

$100M influx 

The provincial government has promised $100 million for health units to cover those sorts of extraordinary costs, which Egli said will help, but may not be enough if the pandemic stretches into 2021.

"Then it becomes a discussion about whether or not there should be a greater initial ask in the budget over and above what we would normally ask for, to take care of, you know, an average year in Ottawa," he said.

"It's tough to say whether $100 million is going to be enough. It's certainly a significant amount of money."

Health units typically receive anywhere from five to eight per cent of Ontario's overall health budget, according to the Canadian Public Health Association. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

According to the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), health units normally receive anywhere from five to eight per cent of the province's overall health budget, depending on the region.

Ian Culbert, the CPHA's executive director, doesn't consider that amount enough to help agencies tackle extreme events like the pandemic.

As a result, he believes municipalities have to be better prepared.

"We need to be setting money aside on a regular basis to cover off these catastrophic events. Because they will happen, and they will probably start happening on a more frequent basis," Culbert said.

The Ford government had been discussing cuts to Ontario's public health network in the fall of 2019, before the pandemic hit.

Both Culbert and Egli say the province should consider what's happened during the COVID-19 pandemic when making any future decisions about funding.

With files from Natalia Goodwin