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Public health unit warns of 'void' in the wake of budget cuts, layoffs

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, pictured in a Jan. 19, 2024 file photo.  (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC - image credit)
The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, pictured in a Jan. 19, 2024 file photo. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC - image credit)

Fewer Windsor-Essex schools with nurses and some residents unable to get help quitting smoking are among the changes at the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit after laying off two dozen staff amid a budget crunch.

The layoffs affecting 24 staff positions were first announced in December and will be complete by mid-February, said CEO Ken Blanchette at a board of health meeting Thursday.

Health unit staff outlined the shifts in programming that will work within their new constraints during the board meeting.

Among them are reduced support for recreational water inspections on a seasonal basis; waking and tobacco cessation services for high-priority clients only; the suspension of climate change program supports; and reducing the amount of public outreach for tuberculosis.

Under the immunization banner, the health unit will no longer administer the COVID-19 vaccination or do mobile vaccinations for COVID-19 and the flu, though it will continue to administer the COVID-19 vaccine for vulnerable, high-priority patients per Ministry of Health requirements.

Ken Blanchette is the CEO of the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.
Ken Blanchette is the CEO of the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.

Ken Blanchette is the CEO of the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

Under the umbrella of school health, staff said the number of moderate-needs schools receiving direct nursing support will be reduced to ensure support for higher-priority schools. The health unit has also removed the resources needed for preventative oral and vision health programs in schools.

"Absolutely we're concerned. Our health unit, it's difficult with our funding," Blanchette said. "We were at capacity as it was, where we were with things.

"We have, as a leadership team and a group and staff, we are doing our best to accommodate where we've lost some of our capabilities."

The cuts came during the health unit's budget process. At the time, Blanchette said the health until will receive three-year provincial increases of one per cent per year, which did not keep pace with inflation. The health unit's budget for 2024 is $24.9 million.

Blanchette says the health unit is aware of the strain on the overall health-care system. But, he says they'll continue to advocate for their services.

"But again there is going to be a void and some of the services that we have in the past and we will continue to advocate," he said.

"We're doing our best of what we possibly can."

The health unit is there to serve the community's "most marginalized," Blanchette says — so depending on the program some residents may feel the cuts more than others.

When the layoffs were announced in December, the Ministry of Health told CBC News the provincial government has increased funding by "nearly 13 per cent" to WECHU since 2018, in addition to the funding the government provided for pandemic response in recent years.