The Selinger government plans to trim health-care administration costs by eliminating six of the province's 11 regional health authorities through a series of mergers.
The plan -- to be formally unveiled in today's budget -- is expected to save the province $10 million over the next three years. Some 30 to 35 executive positions will be eliminated.
Health Minister Theresa Oswald said the amalgamations are part of a larger reorganization of health services the NDP government will unveil in the weeks ahead.
"It will be a big deal," Oswald said of the mergers in an interview Monday. "Without a doubt, it will be one of the biggest changes in 15 years in health care in Manitoba."
But Oswald also vowed there would be no cuts to front-line health services as a result of the rationalization. "We want to ensure that we use every resource that we have... to support our front-line care," she said.
In most cases, the regions that are merging border with one another. The exception is the Churchill Regional Health Authority, which oversees health care in the northern Manitoba town. It will be joined with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
Oswald said the merger makes sense since Churchill patients needing special care fly to Winnipeg as opposed to Thompson. And by joining the WRHA, Churchill, with the help of the University of Manitoba, will be better positioned to expand its role as a hub in providing health services to Nunavut. "We actually want to seriously look at broadening the opportunities for Churchill," Oswald said.
Regional authorities deliver and administer health care within a defined region. The regional system was instituted in Manitoba by the Progressive Conservatives under then premier Gary Filmon in 1997.
In addition to shedding administrators, the move will eliminate the expense of maintaining six boards of directors.
Oswald said the government has been striving for a decade to bring down the corporate costs of health care. At one point, Manitoba had the highest hospital administrative costs in the country, she said. Now it has among the lowest.
The mergers are part of a broader strategy to modernize the health system so it is "sustainable today and into the future," the minister said. "The plan will be more about a vision for health care for Manitoba: protecting front-line services, being innovative and positioning ourselves to provide the best possible care for the people who need it, where they need it and when they need it."
Oswald said she didn't expect great resistance to the government's amalgamation plans from regional health authorities. She said regional boards will want to minimize any patient and staff anxiety. "They will want to, in my view, make this happen as seamlessly and as calmly as possible."
In fact, Oswald expects some RHAs may merge in the next few weeks -- even before the province passes its enabling legislation. Under the existing law, RHAs may merge if their boards pass a resolution with two-thirds of members voting in favour.
Once the amalgamations are completed, Manitoba will have far fewer regional health authorities than neighbouring Saskatchewan (13) or Ontario (14). British Columbia, with a population of 4.6 million (compared to 1.2 million in Manitoba), has six RHAs.
A few years ago, Alberta's health system underwent a dramatic rationalization, leaving it with one super health authority. But Oswald said there are several problems with that approach, not the least of which is the perceived inability to respond to local concerns.
She said while Manitoba will eliminate six RHAs, the government will ensure, through legislation, community voices are "strongly heard" and there is "authentic meaningful dialogue" between health authorities and local groups.