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Battle over public health heating up


The Northwestern Health Unit will continue the fight to keep its doors open when it makes a plea at the Rainy River District Municipal Association annual meeting next Saturday for payment beyond February.

And Dr. Pete Sarsfield, chief medical officer with the health unit, admitted he expected things would get very heated.

"I’ve been told to wear body armour," he said yesterday from Kenora, though adding he hoped discussion would be constructive.

"[But] I’ve been told that this might get a little rude."

"It’s sort of building that way," admitted RRDMA president Ken McKinnon, who’s also reeve of La Vallee. "But it’s not our makings."

The tension revolves around the health unit’s threat of legal action against area municipalities that haven’t paid the first month’s instalment of the $64 per capita annual levy (up from last year’s $10 per capita levy).

Dr. Sarsfield noted 10 municipalities in the Kenora and Rainy River districts should see legal papers by Friday as the health unit sues those still refusing to fully pay their bill.

The health unit is looking for payment, along with interest and costs incurred. The week holdup, Dr. Sarsfield said, was the time-consuming paperwork.

But Reeve McKinnon, whose council opted to make a monthly payment based on its 1997 public health bill, noted municipalities were in the same boat as the health unit--they didn’t have the dollars to make payments.

And he called the threat of legal action premature.

"None of our tax dollars are going to be coming in until the end of February," he stressed, adding they didn’t have definites on transition funding yet, either (that’s expected sometime in June).

"The offsetting dollars have not been available for us to make up for the shortfall," he explained.

The 12 other municipalities in the two districts--up from five as of last Thursday’s deadline--paid their bill for January, and some for February.

That, along with $400,000 in reserves and a $266,000 advance from the province for the $1.2 million it will pay this year for unincorporated residents, meant public health staff weren’t issued layoff notices last Friday.

It also gave the health unit a one-month stay of execution.

"We’re going to be doing this whole thing again in February," Dr. Sarsfield warned, with the health unit still waiting for formal notification of its share of the $11.2 million announced for provincial health units.

"This is really the first agency of ‘downloading,’" noted Reeve McKinnon. "This is what we’re going to go through."

While land ambulance is another service being passed down to municipalities, Paul Brown, CEO of Riverside Health Care Facilities Inc. here, didn’t anticipate they would be in a similar situation.

The province has agreed to extend the licences for Northern Ontario operators--most of them hospitals--for the next two years, he noted.

"But the municipalities will be supplying that funding," he added, saying they were seeking further clarification from the province as to how that would be billed.

Rainycrest administrator Kevin Queen could not be reached for comment.

In related news, Jaffray-Melick Mayor David Canfield, first vice-president of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association, met with Northern Development and Mines minister Chris Hodgson last week and stressed the ministry was trying to come up with a solution.

"I was trying to get through to them that we don’t have the money to pay the bills," he said yesterday, adding it was a transitional year and no one, including the province, knew what was going on.

"They’re scrambling to try and figure it out," he added.

One option was to have a similar arrangement to the land ambulance where the province was paying, then billing municipalities.

While Jaffray-Melick has come through with its payment, Mayor Canfield said he was going to recommend all municipalities in the Kenora District also pay.

"We don’t have any choice," he added. "We can’t go without public health."

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