Inflation, COVID-19 putting pressure on Sudbury's health unit budget

With inflation expected to continue driving up costs throughout the upcoming year, Public Health Sudbury and Districts has approved a $28.5 million budget for 2023 that includes a 1.43 per cent spending increase over 2022.

The health unit's board of health unanimously voted in favour of the budget on Thursday, during its first meeting since the municipal election on Oct. 24.

The budget increase is expected to result in a per capita levy of $3.71 for every person within Public Health's jurisdiction, including Greater Sudbury and 17 surrounding communities on Manitoulin Island and the District of Sudbury.

Committee chair Carolyn Thain said the budget was the result of careful consideration in the face of increased financial pressure and uncertainties.

"This year's budget was done within the context of refocusing health unit resources on recovery priorities, resuming public health programs and services, and continuing our efforts to address COVID-19," said Thain. "I'd like to commend the team for the work they've done to bring forward a budget that's responsible and very transparent."

The need for a budget increase was primarily attributed to the rising inflation rate, which Thain said has driven up fixed and operations costs.

With costs expected to go up in 2023, Public Health staff is projecting a shortfall of $2.5 million going into 2024.

Public Health currently has a shortfall of nearly $640,000, which Thain attributed to annualized salary and benefit increases and inflationary impacts on fixed operating costs, hydro, and other expenses.

Due to the expected shortfall, Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, Sudbury's medical officer of health, said cuts had been made to keep the health unit on track.

"Overall, this budget is the consequence of some really hard work to try to reduce and mitigate cost increases," she said. "And to understand where we might be able to have some decreases to accommodate fixed cost increases in a way that is responsible from a financial perspective, but also from a board governance perspective."

To offset the shortfall, the board is expecting to once again receive a mitigation grant from the Ministry of Health for $1.179 million in 2023.

"We're also assuming that the ministry will continue to provide boards with opportunities for reimbursement of the COVID-19 extraordinary costs that have been communicated to us," she said.

Throughout the next year, the board said it intends to focus on rebalancing the distribution of resources, which have experienced significant disruptions throughout the pandemic. While COVID-19 programming will need to continue, the 30-month reduction or suspension of many public health programs and services has led to significant and growing unmet health needs across the community.

"We are really needing to prioritize our programming in the context of the pandemic," she said. "The board is familiar with those priorities, as well as our need to carry through on (Ontario Public Health Standards) programming throughout the year."

While the budget received little pushback, board member and Ward 1 Coun. Mark Signoretti did question why the budget included 15 per cent increase in insurances expenditures compared to last year's budget.

According to Sutcliffe, discussions are ongoing with insurance providers to determine their options for reducing costs in the future.

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Mia Jensen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star