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Health unit levy to stay same in 2011

FORT FRANCES—Carrying on with its strategic plan implemented last year, the Northwestern Health Unit will continue to focus on accountability, fiscal responsibility, partnerships, and measurable goals in 2011.

Some good news for district municipalities is that there will be no health unit levy increase this year.

“Our levy is quite high on a per capita basis for each of the municipalities, but it has been constant for many years,” noted Dr. James Arthurs, medical officer of health for the Northwestern Health Unit.

“It will remain constant,” he pledged. “Because it’s been high in the past, we have no intent of increasing that.

“Our own intent is to keep doing the programs we’re doing, and not only that but do them better,” Dr. Arthurs added.

“Some of the efficiencies have come from trying to do things better that don’t necessarily cost more money, they’re just more efficient.

“We’ve gone through some recession, obviously, in the last two years, and there’s a freeze on funding from the province, so we don’t really have any new money coming in,” Dr. Arthurs continued.

“We’ve had some organizational restructuring that has reduced the number of administrative people, so that has been a cost-savings.

“We’re hoping that will help bridge the gap between some of the monies that aren’t decreased but aren’t increased, either,” he remarked.

Dr. Arthurs said the health unit will continue to keep close tabs on the quality of its programs and how it operates, and will issue a public health report card to let residents know how it is performing.

“We’ve got quite a few new computer systems,” he noted. “One for finance, one for HR [human resources], employee time sheets and all that.

“The process has been trialed and gone live since the first of the year,” he said, adding there’s been quite a bit going on from an organizational point of view.

One recent change is Dr. Arthurs, who came to the region from the U.S. Pacific Northwest in January, 2009, no longer has to include the term “acting” in his title after Health and Long-Term Care minister Deb Matthews finally approved his credentials in mid-December.

The local health unit’s board of management can appoint a medical officer of health (MoH), but this appointment then is subject to approval by the ministry.

“Because I had all my training in the United States, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario first had a requirement that I had a mentor for a year,” Dr. Arthurs explained.

“After that I had a two-day review. That was done by a different MoH, who was asked to do that by the College of Physicians.

“After she did all her reports, which were all positive, they went to the ministry and the whole application was done all over again.

“It was a long process but I think it’s a good thing that they’re wanting to know people who have not been trained in Canada, and even more specifically Ontario, are and how they work,” he reasoned.

“That’s all behind us now.”

As far as new programs, Dr. Arthurs said the health unit will get going with the “Healthy Smiles Ontario” program.

The program is based on certain criteria—such as the age of the children, their parents level of income, and whether they’ve any form of dental insurance.

“The intent is to have a combination of what we do, in terms of dental hygiene, and also work with contracted dentists to do dental work for these children who don’t otherwise have access [to dental care],” Dr. Arthurs remarked.

“Part of our proposal and funding is to have a mobile dental van.

“We’re so remote, with so many offices and municipalities spread around, we’re hoping it will make a difference in terms of taking the care to the people as opposed to expecting them to come to us,” he added.

Another relatively new program is small drinking water assessment. Last year, health units were given the responsibility of testing drinking water systems at camps and tourist operators.

“The process of inspecting those had always been done by the Ministry of Environment, and was moved over to the health units,” Dr. Arthurs noted.

“The process isn’t new, but it’s switched in terms of who does it.

“So, our public health inspectors have been really busy through the summer and early fall before freeze-up time.

“Of course, many of those places close for the winter anyway but we’ll be really busy with that come spring,” he continued.

“I think we have around 600 different sites we’ll be responsible for completing over a two-year period, in terms of inspections.”

In related news, while there’s been far fewer confirmed ’flu cases in the north than in the south, it does not mean we should let our guard down, with Dr. Arthurs reminding everyone that they should be getting their ’flu shot if they haven’t already.

“Last year, we had the pandemic of H1N1 influenza virus,” he noted. “This year, the predominant circulating virus is H3N2, which is different but in the same class as Influenza A.

“The fortunate part is we have not, in Northwestern Ontario, had much activity—certainly no different from what we expect from the fall and winter season.

“[But] southern Ontario has quite a lot of influenza cases. [And] some of the concerns are that from all of the hype from last year, many people may not be getting vaccinated; that they’re a little more aloof about that,” Dr. Arthurs admitted.

“Actually, our vaccination rate so far has been right on par with what we did last year, as well as previous years.

“We may not have the same kind of outbreak because there have been decreased vaccination rates in the south,” he remarked.

That said, recent headlines about increased ’flu activity provide “a great opportunity to remind the public that they should be getting their ’flu vaccine if they haven’t already,” said Dr. Arthurs.

The good news is the H3N2 strain is in the vaccine being administered, along with the H1N1 strain from last year.

“In the spring of every year, they create next year’s ’flu vaccine,” Dr. Arthurs explained. “Last year, the vaccine didn’t include H1N1, so then they had to create that vaccine and do it separate.

“This year, H1N1 and H3N2 are in the current vaccine.”

Dr. Arthurs said he’s aware there have been a few people in the Kenora-Rainy River catchment area who had been hospitalized due to the ’flu, but they have since recovered and gone home.

“Right now, I am not aware of any hospitalizations with influenza,” he said. “But we’ll have some—we do every year.”

Meanwhile, a topic that has made headlines elsewhere is bed bugs. Back in mid-December, the Northwestern Health Unit produced a folder of fact sheets to educate about bed bugs.

Then last week, the province announced Ontario’s 36 public health units will be able to apply for funding to support bed bug-related programs that emphasize co-ordination with other local services, education and awareness, and/or provide supports to vulnerable populations.

A total of $5 million will be invested by the province to support these programs.

Dr. Arthurs said he’s not sure exactly what the new funding would cover, but since it appears to be geared towards education, and not the detection and extermination of bed bugs, it’s possible the health unit won’t bother to apply for funding given it already provided information to the public last month.

“We’ll have to wait a bit to see what kind of intent the ministry has with the new funding,” he conceded.

“But whether it will make a difference in terms of what we do right now, I don’t know.”

(Fort Frances Times)

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