With the Ontario Conservative government reducing provincial grants by 30 per cent for mandatory provincial programs, the local health unit has requested a 19 per cent increase in funding for the 2021 operational year from the municipality.
Acting Medical Officer of Health Dr. Ian Gemmill carefully laid out in his presentation a history of funding models that have existed for health units since the mid-1990s. Once, all funding was provided by the province.
In 1998, as part of the massive downloading that accompanied the so-called Common Sense Revolution of Conservative Premier Mike Harris, municipalities were asked to pick up 100 per cent of the costs of public health.
Municipalities did not have the adequate resources to fund public health, and since 1998 Gemmill detailed the back and forth in funding models to where it sits today with the province now providing 70 per cent of funding and municipalities providing the remaining 30 per cent.
Since 2019, the health unit has received decreasing grants from the provincial government, leaving it with an almost $430,000 shortfall to pay for the many programs it is mandated by law to provide. In each of 2019 and 2020 Kawartha Lakes taxpayers saw a 10 per cent increase in the health unit levy. In 2021, the grants from Queen’s Park continue to be inadequate, leading to the health unit’s requested 19 per cent increase in the levy which would provide HKPR with an additional $204,503 to pay for its provincially-mandated services.
Gemmill told council via a ZOOM call that before asking for an increase of that size the unit looked for “internal efficiencies” and saved considerable sums by not replacing six staff who retired, closing their office in Brighton and reducing the square footage of their operation in Lindsay.
“We have too many mandated responsibilities and not enough provincial grant money,” Gemmill concluded.
Mayor Andy Letham thanked Gemmill for the additional outreach and communication that the health unit had been engaged in throughout 2020, and then opened the floor for questions from councillors.
Councillor Ron Ashmore wanted to know if the plan to amalgamate the health units, reducing their number from 34 to 10, is still in the works, and could savings be found in that amalgamation?
“We were halfway through that process,” Gemmill said, “when we were derailed by the pandemic. When the pandemic is done there will likely be a pause while we look at what lessons the pandemic has taught us about how public health can better operate. We are looking for efficiencies at delivering program that may be possible through amalgamation.”
Ashmore continued by questioning Gemmill about the $35,000 in the HKPR budget for a needle exchange initiative. Ashmore said he opposed this money being spent, as did many of his constituents.
“Our primary priority is to reduce harm,” Gemmill said, “and to reduce infection from hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV. We save the health care system significant funds by prevention. We also don’t have an option about providing this program.”
Councillor Pat Dunn told Gemmill that “these were indeed extraordinary times. This 19 per cent increase…how much of this is for COVID?”
Gemmill replied, “The 2021 budget that we have presented is for normal times. We are tracking all coronavirus costs and are hopeful the province with pay for all extraordinary costs associated with COVID.”
Councillor Patrick O’Reilly asked Gemmill if HKPR currently had the staffing to provide their full slate of programming.
“Eighty per cent of our staff is focusing on corona. We are not able to provide services in all but a very limited number of programs,” Gemmill said, “but we are hopeful by next school year that things may be more normal. In Israel, who is far ahead of us in dealing with corona, (COVID infections) are falling because of the immunization program. The vaccine will protect us.”
Councillor Kathleen Seymour-Fagan returned to the topic of the needle exchange program and asked how the health unit ensures that all the needles that are distributed are returned and destroyed correctly.
“It would not be accurate to say that all needles that go out come back,” Gemmill said.
“Needles are showing up in our parks and public places and this then becomes a municipal issue, “Seymour-Fagan added.
A decision will be made by council on February 16 about HKPR’s request for additional funding.