Is public health merger good?

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When the HKPR district health unit and its Peterborough counterpart decided to apply to the province to merge earlier this week, we had some questions.

We tried to get some of them answered on Monday – when the news was announced – but were told we’d have to wait until Wednesday for a media scrum.

Let’s hope this isn’t indicative of the likely new model going forward – and that a bigger health unit doesn’t mean diminished transparency for media and the public.

And, we really hope that, as with many of our local agencies aligned with Peterborough, or the City of Kawartha Lakes, that Haliburton County isn’t an afterthought as events unfold elsewhere.

With the two medical officers of health, Dr. Natalie Bocking of HKPR, and Dr. Thomas Piggott of PPH, bringing in a combined salary of more than $622,000, we wonder if there will now be one of them, taking nearly $300,000 out of the combined budget?

And, after a cursory glance at the Sunshine List for 2023, reporting for 2022, we were surprised to find there are more civil servants making more than $100,000 in HKPR, than in Peterborough. According to the stats, some 24 HKPR’ers are making about $3 million (including Bocking). Another 15 are pulling in nearly $2 million at PPH (Piggott included). That’s a combined $5 million in salaries and benefits alone. That is before a single program is even delivered.

Premier Doug Ford came after health units prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Remember his “modernization” of public health announcement on April 11, 2019? Many said modernization was a spin word for cutting public health. He planned to cut spending by $200 million, a 27 per cent budget cut, and reduce public health units to 10 from 35. Of course, he was urged to pause his modernization plans by, among others, the Association of Local Public Health Agencies until the COVID-19 emergency was declared over.

Incidentally, the province downloaded a greater share of the costs to municipalities.

About a year ago, his government offered voluntary mergers instead. Some health units, like HKPR and PPH could clearly see the writing on the wall, accepting the ‘volun-told’ invite.

We know the hard-working folks at the HKPR office in Haliburton have to be worried about what this means for them. They valiantly led the COVID fight for years and are now catching up on all of the programming that fell by the wayside – such as student vaccinations. They are only catching up on those now.

As members of the public, we want to know a few things, too. How much is this merger costing? We’ve heard $3.5 million. Is the province really going to fund this?

Will there be staff cuts? Will there be programming cuts? Will we still be able to take our well water to the health unit for testing? Will the health inspector be out at local restaurants? Will someone be keeping an eye on student vaping? How can we ensure that smaller towns and cities, such as Haliburton, Minden and Wilberforce, still have access to the public health programming they have had for years?

On the surface, one might say the public health system is bloated and needs to be streamlined. However, until we know what the other side of the coin means for us, it is hard to say whether this is a good thing, a bad thing, or a somewhere in the middle thing.