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Health authorities agree to mergers

Amalgamations to be expedited

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Manitoba's 11 regional health authorities, seeing the writing on the wall, have agreed to a series of mergers that will reduce their numbers to five.

In an interview at the Free Press News Café on Tuesday, Health Minister Theresa Oswald announced the boards of all 11 RHAs had already OK'd a government health-care rationalization plan unveiled in the April 17 provincial budget.

Oswald introduced legislation last week to institute a series of money-saving RHA amalgamations and several other health-authority reforms. The government hopes the mergers will save $10 million in administration costs over the next three years as 35 positions are eliminated. It has vowed the moves will not affect patient care.

Oswald said Tuesday the proactive move the RHA boards of directors took means the mergers will occur more swiftly. "We think you'll actually see the new regional health authorities take their new shape by the end of May," she said.

It's expected the chief executive officers of the five new authorities will be named in the next several weeks. The current CEOs will officially be out of a job by May 18, although a few could be named to head the remaining RHAs.

In interviews this week, several CEOs were resigned to, if not upbeat about, the coming changes.

"Our board looked at this (vote) as demonstrating leadership. It's an evolution in health care in this province," said Kathy McPhail, CEO of the Central RHA.

Central will merge with the South Eastman RHA to form what will tentatively be called the Southern Regional Health Authority.

McPhail said the two RHAs, which extend northward from the 49th parallel and border one another, have a lot in common, including rapidly growing populations fuelled by Mennonite and German immigration.

She noted, though, with a twinge of sadness, Central had just received a favourable accreditation report from an outside agency that examined its operations. "We really don't get a huge opportunity to celebrate those achievements (before the merger)," she said.

Over on the west side of the province, three regional health authorities will become one. They also voted to merge in the past couple of days.

"I think if change is inevitable then the best way to proceed with that is to be a part of it and be as positive as we can and make it the best we can," said Penny Gilson, CEO of the Assiniboine Regional Health Authority, which serves residents of the southwest corner of Manitoba.

"The legislation right now affords the opportunity for regions to voluntarily agree and allow it to be a more proactive, smooth and collaborative process... " said Gilson, who will lose her current position through amalgamation.

Also to be merged are the Interlake and North Eastman RHAs. The latter includes Beausejour, Lac du Bonnet and Pine Falls.

These two RHAs are similar demographically. Both serve sizable farming and cottage communities and have a significant aboriginal population. They already collaborate on some programming.

"Generally speaking, I think we're pretty excited," North Eastman CEO Ron Van Denakker said Monday before his board voted on amalgamation.

In Churchill, Derry Martens, CEO of the town's RHA, said she embraces the decision that will see her region merge with the Winnipeg RHA.

For years, the port community has provided health services to communities along the west coast of Hudson Bay and other centres in Nunavut. It expects to be able to enhance that role with new resources from the WRHA.

"We can see a lot of very, very positive things coming out of this both for the people in Churchill and for the people in Nunavut that we provide services for as well," said Martens, a registered nurse who will lose her CEO job and is unsure what her new role might be.

Because there are already few purely administrative jobs within the Churchill RHA — most employees provide front-line services — Martens expects staff losses there to be "minimal."

"Presumably, I'm going to be here for at least the next while to help get this set up and functioning," she said in a telephone interview.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2012 A4

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