Health unit hoping for funding solutions

Whether it’s a significant levy increase or more funding from the province, the Northwestern Health Unit needs more money to do its job properly in 2004, said its CEO and medical officer of health.
“We need stable funding for public health,” argued Dr. Pete Sarsfield. “It’s a problem across Canada, but specifically we need it in Ontario, and even moreso in Northwestern Ontario.”
“It’s absolutely essential,” he stressed. “BSE, influenza, SARS, West Nile—it’s easy to see what we’ve been having to deal with this past year.”
Dr. Sarsfield noted there’s recent “formal rumour” in public health care circles that the province perhaps will foot 100 percent of the operating costs for Ontario’s 37 health units next year, but conceded he won’t believe it until he sees it.
But did stress the importance of the need for provincial involvement in public health care, adding that where the health unit gets its funding from is important as how much it gets.
“Right now, we see a conflict of interest every time an elected municipal official walks into our boardroom,” he remarked. “They inevitably make decisions based on the fact they’re paying for it.”
But as it stands, the health unit also likely will be looking to municipalities in the Kenora and Rainy River districts to cough up more dough for public health service in the new year.
“We’re required to do mandatory programs,” said Dr. Sarsfield. “To do everything we’re supposed to, it would cost $50 per person per year. Right now, we’re getting $36.75 per person.
“We took a look at recent levy increases at all 37 health units across Ontario, and the Northwestern Health Unit was the lowest,” he added. “In Sudbury, they had a 27 percent increase in January, 2002 and then another five percent in January, 2003—that’s 33 percent in one year.
“It’s inevitable there’s going to be a levy increase. It’s that, or accept that we’ll keep on having the lowest life expectancy rate around,” he remarked.
Dr. Sarsfield said the extent of a health unit levy hike is a matter still to be decided by its board of directors, but that it certainly will come before regional municipalities meet early in the new year.
As for 2003, the outstanding issue for the health unit here was its battle to ban smoking in all enclosed public places, said Dr. Sarsfield.
“The smoking work was the ‘highlight’ for us, if you want to be ironic,” he remarked. “It was so heated and nasty. I’d like to see it over within the New Year.”
As reported in Monday’s Daily Bulletin, the health unit recently learned it would have to wait until at least next month to find out if the provincial Health Services Review Appeal Board decides in favour of its stance on banning smoking in public places.
“We found out after the media,” noted Dr. Sarsfield, referring to a story in the Dec. 17 edition of the Times.
“We got a letter saying they’d let us know what they [had] decided by mid-January at the earliest,” he said. “I shake my head. What are you gonna do?”
Dr. Sarsfield noted if the ruling is in the health unit’s favour (that is, the appeal board decides the health unit has the right to enforce smoking bans in enclosed public places on the grounds second-hand smoke is a health hazard), health unit staff are poised to crack down on business owners who refuse to “butt out.”
But he added the health unit may not have as much work ahead of it handing out fines as it might have even a year or two ago, noting a widespread shift in attitudes appears to be increasing every day.
“I wonder if it’s going to be a self-enforcing thing?” he remarked. “After all, it was recently announced that Ireland was going to get rid of smoking in public places, and Norway was going to do it, too.
“The world is recognizing the risks of second-hand smoke. It’s something that’s evolving in the human consciousness,” he added.
“Sure, there’s the diehards that will hang in there until their last breath,” Dr. Sarsfield admitted. “But Ireland has a long history of smoking, and they’re going to change.
“I think it’s going to happen everywhere, sooner than later.”
(Fort Frances Times)