Basrur quashes talk of health unit merger

Despite rumblings to the contrary, Ontario’s top health official said last week that the provincial government has no plans to see all of Northwestern Ontario fall under the jurisdiction of one health unit.
Dr. Sheela Basrur, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, was in Fort Frances last Friday and did her best to quash rumours the Northwestern Health Unit and Thunder Bay District Health Unit may merge.
“Let me set the record straight,” she told a small group of reporters at the Civic Centre. “The province has no intention, in the foreseeable future, of amalgamating the Northwestern Health Unit and the Thunder Bay Health Unit.
“I would rather look at ways that [the two units and the provincial government] can work together in a functional sense,” she added.
The provincial government is preparing a capacity review of the current public health system and Dr. Basrur, who would be consulted on any proposed mergers, expects to have the results of that review by the end of this year.
“That capacity review will be one very key body of advice,” she noted.
When reached Monday, Fort Frances Mayor Dan Onichuk, who also sits on the Northwestern Health Unit’s board of directors, said he hadn’t heard any specifics but knew there was quiet talk of combining some health units across Ontario.
“There’s been rumblings from [Health minister George] Smitherman about combining a bunch of health units across the province,” the mayor said. “If you’re sitting in southern Ontario, this just seems to be a natural one for them to [combine].”
Two months ago, the Muskoka-Parry Sound District Health Unit merged with health units in Simcoe County and North Bay, but the results have not been good.
According to Mayor Onichuk, there has been a significant reduction in service in those areas. And the same could be expected here if the Northwestern Health Unit and Thunder Bay District Health Unit were ever merged, he warned.
“Our feeling is that if there is a merger between the two, we’d get lost in the shuffle, we’ll become insignificant,” Mayor Onichuk remarked.
The mayor also noted the majority of the Thunder Bay District Health Unit’s services are provided out of Thunder Bay, and that a merger would have a detrimental affect on the Northwestern Health Unit’s offices in smaller communities in this part of the region.
“If we combine with Thunder Bay, we’ll get swallowed up,” Mayor Onichuk argued. “Offices in Rainy River, in Emo, in Pickle Lake, you’ll see them close.”
The Thunder Bay District Health Unit also has offices in Geraldton, Marathon, Manitouwadge, Schreiber, and Nipigon.
Mayor Onichuk and other board members of the local health unit were with Dr. Basrur here Friday afternoon, and said the rumours about possibly combining the two health units was among the many issues the group discussed.
When asked if he thought the province was going to amalgamate the two, Mayor Onichuk replied: “Not immediately.”
“I don’t see it as a burning issue but it’s something we’re cognizant of,” he added.
The Northwestern Health Unit encompasses an area of more than 190,000 sq. km and operates offices in 11 communities, including Fort Frances, Emo and Rainy River.
Some 85,000 people fall under its jurisdiction, which stretches west to the Manitoba border, east past Atikokan, and north past Pickle Lake.