Board of health concerned about recommended lab closures

GUELPH – Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH) is concerned with a recommendation by Ontario’s Auditor General to close six of 11 Public Health Ontario laboratory sites.

At the March 6 board of health meeting, Medical officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer flagged a letter circulated by the Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington (KFLA) Board of Health opposing the potential closures and opened the topic for discussion.

The auditor general completed a value-for-money audit in December 2023. 

Public Health Ontario operates 11 laboratory sites in Toronto, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Orillia, Ottawa, Peterborough, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Thunder Bay and Timmins. Among its recommendations is to close six of the sites.

The auditor general noted laboratory operations take about 70 per cent of labs’ total funding and they do diagnostic and confirmatory tests as well as complex tests that other providers, such as hospitals and community laboratories, can’t do.

“Public Health Ontario’s laboratory serves public health units, hospital and community laboratories, long-term-care homes and other congregate settings, clinicians in private practice, and private citizens in the context of private well water testing,” states the report.

But the investigation found many regional labs were transferring out much of their testing to other sites – mainly to Toronto or London.

The labs in Peterborough, Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury transferred between 80% and 91% of all tests to other sites, according to the AG report.

Consolidating the sites could  save about $6 million per year, the report found, and it recommends gradually closing labs in Hamilton, Kingston, Orillia, Peterborough, Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins.

It also recommends changing the types of tests it offers – removing 20 tests, restricting eligibility for 12 tests, and gradually discontinuing private drinking water testing.

The KFLA Board of Health was alarmed at what closing the Kingston lab – the closest to them – could mean for the residents it serves.

“The closure of such a well-functioning facility poses a threat to the effective management of public health issues and may compromise our ability to respond promptly to emerging health concerns,” states the letter signed by KFLA board of health chair Wess Garrod.

Mercer said it would be challenging if the Hamilton laboratory closed, as WDGPH  samples would have to go to Toronto.

“It’s not an easy location to access,” she said, adding it would take longer to deliver the sample and perhaps longer still given traffic on Highway 401. “It could delay results, delay treatment and could mean poor outcomes for patients.”

Mercer also worried individual health units would have to absorb increased courier costs as a result.

WDGPH director of health protection Chris Beveridge saw a challenge for well water testing as well.

“Public health labs are the sole testing lab for private well owners,” he said. 

“If the recommendation to stop testing well water comes to fruition, (well owners) will have to find a private lab for a fee.

“It’s already a challenge getting people to test their water for free. So this causes us concern and puts rural residents at risk.”

“We’ve been proactive on well-water testing,” noted board chair George Bridge.

“I know two-thirds of the residents in Dufferin are on well water,” added Ralph Manktelow, a citizen appointee representing the County of Dufferin.

The board agreed to write a letter to the Ministry of Health and Public Health Ontario expressing support for the KFLA Board of Health position, and concern for increased turnaround time for tests, increased costs to the health unit and worry over eliminating rural well water testing in the face of laboratory closures.