How will Northern Public Health Units merging make service better?

Love it or hate it, we need government. Before 500 BC, the purpose of government was to serve the interests of the rulers of the day, whether they were monarchs, dictators, aristocrats or some privileged ruling class. We have the Greeks to thank for redirecting the target of governing interests. The Greeks first proposed the concept that a land should be ruled by a government that is by and of the people. Ancient Greece was the birth of democracy.

A government has a vast range of responsibilities. However, one of the highest priorities is protection in a very broad way. This includes national defence, personal security, provision of safe infrastructure and care for the sick, elderly and vulnerable. It also must include corporate regulation and oversight to ensure the products, equipment, devices and services we purchase are safe.

Forgive me for being blunt, but after witnessing the goings on with the Greenbelt debacle and the demise of our universal healthcare system, it seems to me that the goal of protecting the interests of all people equally is quickly diminishing, almost day by day, under the leadership of Premier Ford.

I recently attended the annual Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference in London. Health Minister Sylvia Jones utilized the opportunity to announce that the province plans to reverse the Ministry’s cuts to the Public Health Unit (PHU) funding formula and offer special funding to units that merge to form larger PHUs. They plan to amalgamate Ontario’s PHUs, thus drastically enlarging the territory they are responsible for. And, just to grease the wheel and silence naysayers, she explained that only PHUs that voluntarily merge quickly (before being forced later?) will receive additional one-time funds. In other words, the government is exploiting PHUs financial desperation to buy their cooperation.

Northerners know from experience that, up here, PHUs provide services to areas that are already vast, some spanning dozens of communities with unique needs and circumstances. The realities faced by Northern PHUs are different from those in urban and southern parts of Ontario. Merging for some just may not be workable. Only offering additional funds to PHUs that can unite is disadvantaging Northern residents already coping with decades of underfunding public health and mental health services.

Before the pandemic, the government announced in 2019 that it was cutting the provincial share of public health funding. It moved from a 75-25 cost-sharing formula with municipalities to 70 percent from the province and 30 percent from municipalities. After receiving an earful from voters and health unit administrators, Premier Ford relented and implemented in-year retroactive cuts and offered mitigation funding to help local governments transition to the new formula. That mitigation funding was considered temporary but continued up until recently.

Municipalities are already struggling, especially here in the North, where the corporate tax base may not be very broad. This was unnecessary and unfair from the start.

So, Minister Jones used the conference to sell her plans, announcing a return to the previous 75%-25% cost-sharing formula for public health between the province and municipalities. At first glance, it might seem that the province put PHUs back where they were before. It may be welcome news, but it was not an improvement. It corrected the government’s mistake. Furthermore, one must remember that the province decreased its funding for public health by 12.1 percent this year.

Oh wow, thanks a whole bunch, Minister!

After tinkering with the PHU system, Northern Ontarians are worse off than before. In effect, the Ford government is implementing a new scheme that gives the illusion that PHUs support the merger plans. They are in dire need, desperate for additional funding; they sure as heck are not going to function as well working with a 12.1 percent funding cut. Worse, they can only access the money if they voluntarily merge – before they are forced down the line. So, of course, they will comply and say thank you.

The new government policy is unacceptable and will harm vulnerable populations in the North that may not fit into the government’s cookie-cutter solution for all PHUs. When the PHUs are hurting, that means local patients are suffering. I will ensure Premier Ford and Minister Jones receive this message when I head back to the Legislature. The Ford government also needs reminding that their duty is to do what is best for all people, not just bolster their political power and fill the pockets of select supporters.

As always, please feel free to contact my office about these issues or any other provincial matters. You can reach my constituency office by email at my new address, [email protected] or by phone Toll-free at 1-800-831-1899.

Michael Mantha