Ten former ministers of health, including one who served under Tory Premier Bill Davis, have written an open letter calling on the province to reverse its cuts to public health.

The letter was sent to current Minister of Health Christine Elliott on Thursday as the PC government continued to face criticism for its decision to reduce its share of funding for public health agencies.

The changes would see the province go from funding 75 or 100 per cent of Toronto Public Health’s programming to 60 per cent, retroactive to April 1. It would then reduce its share of the budget to 50 per cent by April, 2021.

Elsewhere in Ontario, the province will reduce its contribution to public health agencies serving fewer than a million people to 70 per cent and 60 per cent for those public health agencies serving more than a million people, Toronto excluded.

The open letter warns that the cuts “put the prosperity of our communities and of our entire province at risk” and “cannot go forward.”

It also argues that they “make no economic sense,” given that public health agencies “help Ontarians stay healthy so they don’t need to go to the doctor or hospital.”

“Traditionally ministers of health have avoided commenting on the policies of their successor. Health has been seen as a nonpartisan issue – something we all support. This attack on public health has prompted us to break our silence,” the open letter states. “We implore you, Minister Elliott, to stop these drastic cuts and find a way to move forward that doesn’t risk our public health services.”

Cuts will cost Toronto Public Health $65M in 2019

City Manager Chris Murray has said that the funding formula change announced by the province will leave Toronto Public Health with a $65 million shortfall in its budget for 2019 and an $86 million shortfall in 2020.

Speaking with reporters at a news conference at Queen’s Park on Thursday, former Liberal health minister Helena Jaczek said that “whenever public health has been cut in the past tragedies have occurred.”

Jaczek, who served as health minister under former premier Kathleen Wynne in 2018, said that knowledge is why she and nine other former health ministers have taken “fairly unprecedented” step of openly calling on the PC government to reverse course.

“My political involvement was related to Walkerton where the government of the day tried to cut what they called red tape but they had broken down the integral role of public health to the safety of water. That was a cost saving measure that they made and it resulted in tragedy,” she said of the 2000 water crisis that killed seven people and sickened thousands. “So for me it (public health) is an absolutely vital lynchpin in the system across this province for the health of Ontarians.”

Elliott says ‘essential services’ won’t be affected

Opponents of the cuts have warned that they will amount to a $1 billion reduction in funding for public health initiatives in Toronto alone over the next decade.

The province, however, has said that the cuts are necessary as it works to address a deficit that will stand at $11.7 billion in 2019.

On Thursday, Elliott told CP24 that she is “disappointed” with the former health ministers for speaking out before her government has even had a chance to “sit down and work with municipalities and public health units on how this is going to be coordinated.”

“With the money that we are transferring, it will be $114 million this year to the City of Toronto, if they work on the basic foundations of what they are required to do like vaccinations and making sure that the breakfast programs continue I am sure that there will be enough there to provide those essential services,” she said.

The funding formula change was announced weeks after the City of Toronto passed its budget for 2019, leaving it little flexibility to respond.

Nonetheless, Elliott said that she is “certain” that municipalities can find savings to offset the funding reduction “while making sure that they cover the essential basics of public health.”

“We got elected by the people of Ontario to deal with the $15 billion deficit. We had to go through line by line and find those savings. We were aiming to find four cents on every dollar and we found eight cents on every dollar, so we are asking municipalities as well to find four,” she said.

Ontario is only province that doesn’t fully fund public health

On Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford told CP24 that there is “something wrong with the administration at city hall” if they can’t find enough savings in a “bloated bureaucracy” to offset the costs.

The open letter, however, points out that cuts to public health funding could have real consequences, pointing to the SARS epidemic as proof of the “devastating impact of failing to invest in public health.”

At Thursday’s news conference, the city's board of health chair Joe Cressy said that Ontario was already the only province that doesn’t pick up the entire bill for public health and by reducing funding further is putting Ontarians at risk.

“While there may be 10 ministers who have signed this letter I can tell you that there are more who also oppose these cuts but are in positions where they are not able to publicly sign letters,” he said.

The open letter was signed by former ministers of health from Tory, Liberal and NDP governments.

Dennis R. Timbrell, who was the Minister of Health from 1977 to 1982 under Premier Bill Davis, was the only Tory to sign the letter.