Bonnechere Valley Mayor Jennifer Murphy opposes the merger of the Renfrew County District Health Unit with another health unit.

Eganville — Bonnechere Valley Mayor Jennifer Murphy is speaking out against the Renfrew County District Health Unit (RCDHU) merging with another health unit as the deadline for potential mergers approaches in a few weeks.

“The province wants the potential mergers in by April 2,” she told a committee meeting of BV council last Tuesday.

The mayor said the province announced in August 2023 an initiative encouraging voluntary mergers of health units and now the deadline is rapidly approaching. As a member of the board of health, she said she wanted to speak out against a possible merger affecting the (RCDHU). She noted the local health unit serves 107,522 people across the largest geographical area of any public health unit in Southern Ontario.

“Obviously we are the largest county in the province and we also include South Algonquin,” she said.

While the province has wanted health units to look at mergers, she said it appears some of the eastern region health units are not interested in merging with the RCDHU. One possibility of a merger is with the North Bay area health unit.

However, Mayor Murphy was unequivocal in her opposition to a potential merger.

“At this time, I am not in favour of a merger for several reasons, including the geographic nature of Renfrew County being the largest county in the province,” she said.

Another objection was “several millions of dollars to consultants to merge health units and infrastructure should be invested directly into health care.”

The mayor said the health units that merge will have a financial advantage from the province which is punitive to those that choose not to merge. Those in status quo will have a one percent funding increase for each year in the next three years, she said.

“The proposed 500,000 population served by each new health unit only affects those in rural Ontario or those in small urban centres, so no large urban area will be touched by this,” she added.

She pointed out if she sits on the RCDHU as a representative, she is protecting the health and wellness of the people in the community. She added there could be negotiations with the county for additional IT and HR requirements if that is what is lacking.

“I still do not understand the ‘why’ of these mergers despite the fact that I have asked the question multiple times,” she said.

Through the pandemic and the floods in the area, the staff of RCDHU proved they could pivot to provide the best service to the area, she stressed.

“So, if there is concern, we don’t have this or we don’t have that, trust me, if we don’t have something, we look for it and we find it,” she said.

The board has several meetings planned in March to deal with the issue. She promised to keep council informed.

About the Money

“My first statement is one of disbelief when they say it is not about money,” said Councillor John Epps. “It has to be in some way about money.”

He noted he served on the district health council serving Renfrew County in the Whitney area in 1994 and then the LHIN came in.

“We went from serving a population of about 98,000 to 700,000 because we were unceremoniously dumped into the Ottawa melting pot. I fail as a physician, a hospital board member, a medical staff member to see how that benefited us,” he said.

It was always a greater struggle to have needs met, he said.

He said he did not see why merging the health units would be any better. He foresees being forced to strengthen ties to Ottawa.

“That almost never works well for health care consumers in Renfrew County,” he said.

Mayor Murphy said someone said in jest they would only see someone from the LHIN if they were driving from North Bay to Ottawa and stopped for a coffee.

Councillor Brent Patrick said he wants to see what is best for the residents of the township.

“Generalizing and making things bigger sometimes is not the best method especially in rural jurisdictions,” he said. “It is no different than we maintain our roads because we know them best.”

“The Renfrew County Health District Unit, they serve our people the best,” he said.

Mayor Murphy said she was being very outspoken about this issue.

“When I think of the millions and millions of dollars invested in this it hurts my soul to think ‘why would you not be investing that in front line mental health services, doctors, nurses, PSWs, put it right back in the hands of the people that are taking care of our health needs?’,” she said.

“They keep saying they are voluntary mergers but the carrot on the stick is the money,” she said.

Coun. Epps asked if her feelings are shared by the other members of the board. The mayor said they were, but none had been as vocal as she has been. She cautioned she is not allowed to share some information.

“They have concerns; nobody has gone as crazy as I have,” she said. “I feel very passionately about the health care in this area because I know how great it can be.”

During the flooding in the county several years ago, health unit staff were “boots on the ground” helping people, she said.

“The staff just stepped up and we don’t have a huge staff. They did what they had to do and that is the spirit of our area,” she said.

As well, the mayor said she was concerned about staff losing their jobs if there is a merger because duplication would be avoided.

Even with a health board, in other jurisdictions the health board members rotate out more frequently and in Renfrew County the board members usually stay consistent for the term of the warden, so this is an additional concern, she said.

The mayor said she knew she would face criticism but wanted to speak out.

“We are fine, so please leave us alone,” she said to the province.

“And we finally have a permanent medical officer of health after a decade,” she said.