Sarnia-Lambton’s public health leaders should consider a merger with Chatham-Kent before an ordered consolidation creates a much larger public health region, says MPP Bob Bailey.
“It’s reasonable to assume the boundaries will change,” Bailey said of his government’s directive to reduce the number of public health authorities from 35 to 10.
“It’s better to be the author of your own future than have it forced on you.”
Health units deliver services ranging from disease prevention, food safety and immunizations to harm reduction, sexual health and parenting support.
The Ford government’s spring budget alarmed local health officials by announcing a “modernization” of health units to increase efficiency and save money. Initial reports suggested Lambton Public Health could amalgamate with as many as three others to create a single entity including London and Windsor.
Large regional units could save the province $200 million a year by 2020, the government says. It also wants to increase the share of public health costs municipalities pay.
Part of Premier Doug Ford’s election platform was to cut spending and Ontario’s deficit, said Bailey. “This is part of that change.”
But Sarnia-Lambton might avoid a massive consolidation and maintain local control if talks are initiated with Chatham-Kent, the MPP said.
He met recently with Lambton County officials who oversee public health and assured them no changes will be made without more consultation.
That came as a relief to Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley.
A massive public health unit “won’t be functional,” he said.
“We will lose our identity and our voice. We might have one person at the table on a 20-person board,” said Bradley.
“Right now we are hands-on with a very responsible board that directs all the different health issues in Sarnia-Lambton.”
To Lambton County’s credit, and thanks to the city-county amalgamation in 1991, we don’t have the duplication of other health units, he said.
Deputy Lambton Warden Kevin Marriott described the suggested merger with Chatham-Kent as “interesting.”
“We already have the same education boundaries and share some of the same hospital services,” he said.
Bailey later told The Journal that Lambton’s health unit is “a model for the province” because it serves both the city and county efficiently.
“I really don’t see it working if there was consolidation between Lambton, London and Windsor,” Bailey said. “I’d be happy to take that case to the minister.”
Meanwhile, Lambton is negotiating a lease for office space at the Bayside Centre’s shared services centre in downtown Sarnia, which includes offices for public health workers.
That deal is critical to the centre’s new owner, Seasons Retirement Communities, proceeding with a $40-million redevelopment of the aging mall.
County council has directed staff to complete the negotiations with Seasons by the end of September, even though public health consolidations could reduce how many offices are needed by Lambton Shared Services.
“I am convinced any changes with staff won’t be major enough that we need different space,” Marriott said.
“We can’t be 100% sure, but we are optimistic they’ll find efficiencies without upsetting the apple cart.”