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Health unit among best in province

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The Northwestern Health Unit may be one of the best in Ontario, but it soon will be acting on a long list of recommendations contained in an operational review delivered here Tuesday night by Calgary-based Blackwell Group.

“The overall performance is very good,” said Denise Blackwell, who, along with John Ross, made the presentation to about 20 people at the Civic Centre.

“They’re providing over 80 percent of the mandatory public health programs, compared to an average of 70 percent by all other health units in the province,” she added.

“They’re well-organized.”

Blackwell also applauded the health unit for ending the year with a balanced budget, filling in gaps in health care service, maintaining a positive professional profile, and front-line service delivery, among many other strengths.

She noted it serves the largest geographic area in Ontario with the most sparse population, and yet has done better than most other public health units in the province.

“You’ve done a really good job of knowing your communities. You know what Dryden might need is different than what Rainy River might need,” noted Blackwell.

But not all the review’s findings were positive, with a total of 90 recommendations made.

A few recommendations were to fine-tune management and staff responsibilities, decrease the number of jobs some staff have to juggle at once, and enhance orientation programs for new staff.

But some of the more significant ones revolved around Dr. Pete Sarsfield, the health unit’s CEO and medical officer of health, and the board of health.

“The MOH/CEO is an excellent MOH and a competent CEO,” the report said.

But it added, “Most of the concerns around his performance as MOH/CEO are not due to poor technical skills, but because he personalizes issues and has poor negotiating and conflict-resolution skills.”

It recommended Dr. Sarsfield should remain in his position, but undertake training to improve his interpersonal skills and work with the board to repair the damaged relationship.

“The fact is, although this is quite painful, I agree with them,” Dr. Sarsfield said frankly after last night’s meeting.

“I have a quick temper, I have a smart mouth. I need to learn to shut up—I have to grow up,” he added.

The review also suggested Dr. Sarsfield get better benefits and a pay increase to bring him in line with other MOH/CEOs across the province.

But he noted, “I’m not going to push for that. We’re in a [financial] bind as it is.”

Meanwhile, the report recommended board of health chair Ingrid Parkes resign, but she said that doesn’t mean the end of her involvement with the board.

“I can use my other hats, like NOMA, to do some lobbying and hopefully secure some funding. I can still be a board member,” she remarked.

“They’ve recommended a six-month period to make some changes so we’ll work on that,” added Parkes. “I think the next year is going to be critical to get our governance in order.”

The review noted the health unit has suffered as the relationship between Dr. Sarsfield and the board deteriorated, with the board turning its attention to cost control and involvement in administrative and operational detail.

Governance responsibilities, including strategic management of the health unit and directing Dr. Sarsfield, were either unsuccessful or ignored.

The consultants have recommended, among many things, that the board and Dr. Sarsfield should negotiate the terms of their working relationship; refrain from interfering in the operations of the health unit; undertake board development training; and ensure municipal appointees are residents of their communities, but not elected officials that could pose a conflict of interest.

Dr. Sarsfield noted district municipalities and the public should expect the health unit to try and make some changes in the future.

“I’m going to assume every recommendation is good and right, unless I can prove otherwise,” he said. “I think within six months to a year, we can have a progress report, and that will be made public.”

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