Most of the 12 municipalities in Almaguin Highlands are a little closer to being part of an Ontario Health Team.
The OHTs are the agencies the Premier Doug Ford government announced two years ago to replace the Local Health Integration Networks across the province. The province has begun to set out their coverage areas.
Armour Township Coun. Rod Ward says two of the proposed health teams announced for the area were the Near North OHT, which would take in North Bay and Nipissing, and the Muskoka and Area OHT.
Ward says in December 2019 the province said both proposed OHTs could advance to the next level of their formation.
“But for some bizarre reason the Almaguin Highlands region was identified as being affiliated with both the Near North OHT and Muskoka and Area OHT,” Ward said.
“That was confusing and then further it turned out we weren't under either Near North or Muskoka and neither group included our area as part of their applications when they were moving forward.”
Ward says for the 10 of the 12 communities that make up the Almaguin Highlands Health Council, it meant they might not have the means to advocate for health-care services.
He says the solution was to apply for a standalone OHT that would take in the communities of Almaguin Highlands.
“We knew going into this it would be virtually impossible to have our own OHT because we don't have the population base or our own hospital,” Ward said.
At best, the year-round population for the Almaguin Highlands is 13,000 people, which doubles to about 26,000 when seasonal residents are considered.
However, going through the motions of applying for an Almaguin Highlands OHT paid off, because Ward says it allowed the local health council to create a patient vision statement and identify the list of services it wanted in its OHT.
That paperwork is now part of the framework the Almaguin Highlands Health Council is using in talks with the Muskoka and Area OHT.
Ward says over the past several months healthcare providers in Almaguin talked regularly with their counterparts in Muskoka and those dialogues have resulted in a decision to see how to include Almaguin in the Muskoka and Area OHT.
Ward says the Muskoka and Area OHT has asked the Almaguin Highlands Health Council to join its steering committee as it moves forward to become an OHT.
Ward has been chosen to represent the health council on the steering committee.
“This is good news for us,” Ward said.
“For the time being we're part of something and hopefully it will evolve into an advocacy of services for the Almaguin Highlands region.”
Ward says thanks to the earlier work the health council did when trying to form its own OHT, the Muskoka group now has a sense of the types of services the small communities need.
Ward says two services residents always bring up in surveys are the need for a walk-in clinic and a nurse practitioner-led clinic.
Ward says the health council doesn't expect some healthcare services to be restored on a full-time basis.
However, he says it's possible to create a satellite service where health professionals visit the various Almaguin communities once a week or twice a month.
Ward says Almaguin has been able to get some services back in recent years, but says what's critical moving forward is that the region may soon have a voice at the table.
“We want to be there having those discussions instead of being at the receiving end when cuts are made and we have no input,” he said.
“So in five years if budget cuts are being made we can ask what's being cut and we'll have a voice.”
Ward says the two Almaguin municipalities that are not part of the health council are South River and Machar.
He says that's due to geography, because the communities are closer to North Bay and everyone has to do what's best for the patients.
But Ward says the health council “will keep the door open” to Machar and South River in the event they want Almaguin Highlands Health Council representation.
Ward also says the health council keeps in regular contact with other nearby health teams like the Near North OHT because it's the belief that patients should be able to move easily and smoothly between areas.
“The important thing is that the patient is at the centre of whatever healthcare delivery model is required,” he said.
In the meantime, Ward says he's ready to start meeting with the Muskoka and Area OHT every two weeks as it continues its work to create an Ontario Health Team.
Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative, The North Bay Nugget