Oxford, Elgin-St. Thomas mull health merger
Fearing the prospect of a sweeping consolidation of Ontario’s public health system, Elgin-St. Thomas and Oxford County health boards are proposing a pre-emptive merger.
A letter of intent was drafted, signed by both boards, and made public Friday. If approved, the joint health board would serve roughly 200,000 people in Elgin, Oxford and St. Thomas starting next spring.
West Elgin Mayor Bernie Wiehle, who chairs the Elgin-St. Thomas Board of Health, said a decision could be made by year’s end.
“We have to have it done,” Wiehle said. “We have to go to the province and make our case . . . there’s a very narrow window of time for us to do this.”
Both boards would benefit, said Wiehle, whose comments were echoed by Oxford County Warden David Mayberry.
“We both think the same way,” Mayberry said. “What we really care about is public health in our community.”
Elgin-St. Thomas board members were frustrated by a provincially appointed panel’s June report recommending, among other things, that Ontario’s 36 current public health units be streamlined into 14 larger operations. Under that plan, ElginSt. Thomas and Oxford would be part of a new health unit also covering Middlesex-London, Perth, Huron, Grey and Bruce counties.
The province has not made a decision on those recommendations, but MPP Jeff Yurek (PC – Elgin-Middlesex-London), his party’s health critic at Queen’s Park, said response from public health boards has not been positive.
“There’s not a lot of support to create these ‘mega health boards,’ ” Yurek said. “It’s hard to deliver public health to a specific region within those large regions . . . it’s better to utilize what we have now and maybe partner some of the small units.
“Merging Elgin and Oxford looks like it’s the right direction,” he added.
Elgin County council members have said they feared a larger health board would strip decision-making from smaller municipalities like West Elgin and its roughly 5,000 residents.
“The rural areas just get left behind,” Central Elgin Mayor David Marr told a board meeting in September. “The cities, the large cities, will say, ‘This is what we’re doing’ and the rest of us will follow suit. That’s not right.”
The letter of intent issued Friday said the Elgin-St. Thomas-Oxford merger is “consistent with numerous provincial reports suggesting the need to reduce the number of health units.” The letter specifically mentioned the provincial panel’s June recommendations.
Oxford’s Mayberry said he suggested a health board merger with Elgin-St. Thomas due to a similar constituency.
“We had a number of issues and looked at our history with Elgin and how similar
Merger players by the numbers
Figures are from 2016
ELGIN-ST. THOMAS 88,978: total population 80+: staff at Elgin-St. Thomas Public Health $8.97M: total ESTPH expenditures
OXFORD COUNTY 110,862: total population 70+: staff at Oxford County Public Health $9.65M: total OCPH expenditures we are in both geography and rural urban mix,” Mayberry said. “Also, we both represent small ethnic groups that require some consideration or attention.”
“The province waves a big stick and we do what we need to do,” Wiehle added.
The medical officer of health in Elgin County, and some senior public health staff in Oxford County, are expected to retire within the next few years. If the merger goes ahead, they would not be replaced.
We have to go to the province and make our case . . . there’s a very narrow window of time for us to do this.” Bernie Wiehle, West Elgin Mayor The rural areas just get left behind.” David Marr, Central Elgin Mayor
Members of the Elgin-St. Thomas Board of Health met in early September to discuss a report released earlier this year, suggesting the 36 boards of health be amalgamated into 14 larger boards among other things.