Louis Pin, St. Thomas Times-Journal and Heather Rivers, Woodstock-Sentinel Review
Fearing changes to Ontario’s health board system two — Elgin-St. Thomas and Oxford County — have proposed a preemptive merger.
The proposed health board would service the roughly 200,000 people in Elgin County, Oxford County, and St. Thomas and would take effect in spring 2018.
A letter of intent was drafted, signed by both boards, and made public Friday.
Bernie Wiehle, chair of the Elgin-St. Thomas Board of Health and Mayor of West Elgin, said a decision could be made by the end of the year.
“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 benefit from the plan, Wiehle said. His comments were echoed by David Mayberry, warden of Oxford County.
“We both think the same way,” Mayberry said. “What we really care about is public health in our community.”
Members of the Elgin-St. Thomas board were frustrated about a separate report published earlier this year proposing Ontario merge its 36 current boards into 14 larger boards of health, among other things.
The province has not yet made any decision regarding that report. Provincial health critic MPP Jeff Yurek said the feedback from public health boards has not been positive.
“There’s not a lot of support to create these ‘mega health boards’,” Yurek said in an interview with Postmedia. “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,” Yurek said.
Members of rural Elgin County council said they were worried a larger board of health would strip decision-making from places like Wiehle’s municipality of West Elgin and the approximately 5,000 people living there.
“The rural areas just get left behind,” David Marr, mayor of Central Elgin, said during 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 says the merger is “consistent with numerous provincial reports suggesting the need to reduce the number of health units.” The letter specifically mentioned the Public Health report.
Mayberry suggested merging 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 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, along with other senior staff in Oxford County, is expected to retire within the next few years. If the merger is accepted those positions will not be replaced.