The boards of the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge (HKPR) district health unit and Peterborough Public Health (PPH) announced Feb. 26 they will seek provincial approval, and funding, to voluntarily merge.

In August 2023, the Ministry of Health announced what it termed “plans to strengthen the public health sector” by offering one-time funding, resources and supports to public health agencies deciding to voluntarily merge by Jan. 1, 2025.

In response, the two regional boards of health decided to move forward with a process to explore the impacts of a voluntary merger. In November 2023, a joint board merger exploration working group was established with representatives from both, and external consulting firm Sense & Nous, to prepare a comprehensive feasibility assessment report. The findings were recently presented to both boards to help make a decision.

“Throughout this process, it was quickly identified that both HKPR and PPH have an extensive history of collaboration and share similar geographic, demographic, health status and population characteristics. Both organizations are also dedicated to reducing health inequities and addressing the most pressing public health challenges faced by the urban, rural, and Indigenous communities they serve,” the two boards said in a press release embargoes until Feb. 28.

During a Feb. 15 meeting, the HKPR board decided to proceed with a proposal to voluntary merge with PPH. The Peterborough-based board made a similar commitment Feb. 21.

Joy Lachica, PPH board chair, told a Feb. 28 media scrum that several benefits have already been identified for the merger.

“Beyond strength in numbers… we’re looking at improved program expertise in specialist positions; cross coverage of staff and improved succession planning; enhanced strength of central corporate service functions; better surge capacity and resiliency, which, hopefully, will lead to less burnout for future public health emergencies,” she said.

Lachica noted the province is likely to make a decision on the merger this summer, though work to bring the two organizations together is likely to stretch into 2025. Dr. Natalie Bocking, HKPR medical officer of health, said the two entities had committed to continuing all existing programs through the merger process.

Bocking said the new entity would serve approximately 345,000 people. There will be no immediate staff cuts, with HKPR currently employing around 170 people and PPH 130.

“I’m excited about the opportunity that a merger like this affords. HKPR and PPH shares similar type of communities, we have the same mandate, we have the same vision and focus on health equity, and we both have a long track record of serving our communities well,” Bocking said. “This merger allows us to bring the strengths of each organization and look at how we can maintain our services and add to them.”

While the HKPR board were told by consultants in November that a merger could cost up to $3.5 million, Bocking said a final figure will be revealed in coming weeks. She confirmed the provincial government had committed to funding all associated costs.

David Marshall, HKPR board chair, said the leadership and structure of the combined units will be discussed extensively before any merger is complete. He said it’s the two board’s intent to retain both Dr. Bocking and Dr. Thomas Piggott, medical officer of health for PPH.

“Some health units have an MOH and a CEO, some have an MOH and an assistant MOH… Dr. Bocking and Dr. Piggott are the only two physicians across both organizations now… [having both] offers an opportunity to look at what is the best leadership structure moving forward,” Marshall said.

While Bocking and Piggott stopped short of confirming they will both be around post-merger, they said they are both “pretty passionate about public health. We care a lot about the work, we believe in it, and we’re committed to our communities.”

Next steps

The HKPR District Health Unit and PPH Boards of Health will submit a joint voluntary merger application to the Ontario Government by April 2 – that demonstrates how a proposed merger would benefit the communities they serve, while supporting outcomes and priorities identified by the Ministry of Health.

Mergers of public health units require provincial legislative change, so will not be definitive until the province has approved it, and commits adequate funding for its success later in the year. Both PPH and HKPR District Health Unit will continue to operate independently during the provincial review period.