The Saskatchewan government has announced it’s moving to consolidate the province’s 12 health regions into one provincial health authority.

The move is among several changes recommended in a report released Wednesday by the Saskatchewan Advisory Panel on Health System Structure.

“We believe one single provincial health authority, focused on seamless care delivery and integration of services will improve the patient experience,” advisory panel member Dr. Dennis Kendel said at a news conference Wednesday in Regina.

“It supports our system’s commitment to think and act as one, and the potential to improve system and strategic planning performance by actually being one organization.”

The panel recommends a single board of directors govern the new provincial health authority.

“We also strongly recommend that physicians play an active role in the planning, engagement and governance of health services to achieve shared responsibility and accountability for health-system performance,” Kendel said.

“Building stronger relationships and greater integration with physicians also has the potential to positively impact the future management of clinical services.”

The report also calls for the consolidation of some clinical services, such as laboratory and diagnostic imaging, and the planning, dispatch and delivery of emergency medical services.

“Overall better coordination and standardization in these areas will improve the patient experience,” Kendel said.

In addition, the panel recommends the consolidation of health system administrative support functions, such as information technology, human resources and financial services. Kendel says the goal is to achieve efficiencies and improve the quality, consistency and sustainability of those services.

The report also recommends the creation of four “service integration areas,” with the aim of improving patient care.

“The provincial health authority must maintain close ties with local communities, and management capacity must still exist where services are delivered,” Kendel said.

“To achieve this, we recommend service integration areas be established that reflect care-seeking patterns, particularly with respect to acute and specialized care.”

While the report recommends four service integration areas, Kendel says further analysis is needed, and the final number may range from three to six.

The panel says the government should review the governance arrangements currently in place for eHealth, the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations, the Physician Recruitment Agency of Saskatchewan and 3sHealth to ensure services are delivered effectively and efficiently. According to the report, that could mean consolidating those entities.

In addition, the report calls for a review of the governance arrangements for the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency. It says the reviews should be conducted within two years of the formation of the provincial health authority.

Saskatchewan Health Minister Jim Reiter says the government accepts all of the recommendations in the advisory panel’s report.

“I’m confident that implementing these recommendations will result in a more effective and efficient health-care structure for Saskatchewan,” Reiter said.

“One provincial health authority that is focused on better coordination of health-care services will improve the quality of care patients receive. It will also reduce administration and duplication across the health system.”

But the NDP Opposition isn’t convinced that the consolidation of the province’s health regions will lead to better patient care.

“When the Sask. Party talks about consolidation, it really means cuts – cuts to health care centres and frontline healthcare workers,” NDP health critic Danielle Chartier said in a news release.

“From the beginning of this so-called consultation, the Sask. Party’s intention has been to cut deeper in health care to make up for their own mismanagement. We did consultations of our own and we did not hear one person say that more cuts were the solution.”

Chartier says Wednesday’s announcement would mean that frontline health care workers and community members’ input into how health care is delivered in their local communities will be eliminated.

“The Sask. Party has consistently tried to gloss over the fact that it mismanaged record resource revenues by promising transformational change, but what we are seeing today is a government that is failing to take responsibility for their own actions,” Chartier said.

“They have consistently attacked former governments for streamlining healthcare; now they’re applauding those savings and pushing ahead with deep and drastic cuts of their own. This is a government that blew through the Rainy-Day Fund and didn’t plan for the future, and it is unacceptable that they are now making the people of Saskatchewan – our health care services and hospitals – pay the price.”

The union that represents more than 13,000 health-care workers in Saskatchewan is also raising concerns about the impact that a single health “superboard” could have on the quality of care.

“Health care restructuring will disrupt the established systems and relationships of providing health care in the province,” Gordon Campbell, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Health Care Council, said in a news release.

“Today’s announcement creates more uncertainty for frontline workers and for rural communities across Saskatchewan. It is also questionable that any cost savings will result.”

CUPE says Alberta has faced many challenges since merging all of its health regions into one.

“We are concerned that one central superboard will be less responsive and harder to navigate for patients and communities,” said Campbell.

“Will this lead to reduced services and a loss of decision making in communities, especially in rural communities? What will this mean for access to health care in communities like Preeceville, Wawota, or Grenfell that have already been experiencing issues?”

The union says the reorganization will cause significant disruption to Saskatchewan’s whole health system, and distract from its purpose of providing quality care to patients and residents.

Reiter says the Ministry of Health has already begun planning for the implementation of the recommended changes. The move to a single provincial health authority is expected to take place in fall 2017, but no firm date has been set.

The health minister says while the government wants to move quickly, it’s important to get it right.

“Throughout the transition to the new provincial health authority, our No. 1 goal will be to ensure patients receive the same or better care,” Reiter said.

“I want to be clear that this change means a reduction of administration; it does not mean a reduction or centralization of health-care services.”

Reiter says he believes moving to a single provincial health authority will result in better coordination and, overall, better health-care services for the people of Saskatchewan.