“We have been a force for articulating a vision of health care in this community that involved a community-owned, not-for-profit, health centre,” said Paula Van Tine, vice president of the Burns Lake Medical Clinic Society (BLMCS).
“That has been our goal and vision and we have never varied from that.”
On June 25, 2013, that vision became unsustainable when officials from Northern Health (NH) informed BLMCS that they would no longer support their efforts to establish a second medical clinic in Burns Lake.
Northern Health’s change of heart took BLMCS members by surprise.
“We had been working very extensively with NH,” said Van Tine. “In particular, starting last November at the annual general meeting when [the public] was first introduced to the recruiters.”
“We articulated our vision, and based on conversations we had with them that they were going to recruit doctors for us, we went ahead big time.”
The two recruiters brought in by NH last November, Charlene Thomas and Sheilagh Wilson, were very enthusiastic about their prospects for finding doctors for Burns Lake. Their enthusiasm was fresh on the heels of successfully recruiting four doctors for Fort St. James.
But attracting medical professionals to Burns Lake has been an uphill battle without any success, at least on the part of NH.
“We had a doctor,” Van Tine said in reference to Dr. Roland Engelbrect. “But we lost him [to Williams Lake] because we didn’t have the clinic or the funding in place.”
Currently, NH has four open postings for family physicians. Burns Lake’s only full-time physician recently left the area. Van Tine said that doctors in Fraser Lake had picked up some of the Burns Lake demand for medical services, but, she pointed out, Fraser Lake will lose one full-time and one part-time doctor in September.
“Medical care all over the Northern Health area is of grave concern,” Van Tine said. “We were really hoping that we would have the success of Fort St. James where they recruited four new doctors. Unfortunately, that has not come to pass.”
After last November’s positive meeting with NH officials, the BLMCS moved forward to secure a lease on clinic space, and to have engineering plans drawn up as well as quotes from contractors for required renovations.
This work was done under the assumption that NH was actively recruiting for doctors to staff the proposed clinic. In consultation with Community Futures Nadina, BLMCS was ready to pen a $200,000 loan agreement in order to move forward.
That is when NH came to Burns Lake to pull their support form the project.
During the June 25 meeting with NH, directors of BLMCS were informed that they would not longer receive support from NH for the medical clinic project. Northern Health chief executive officer, Michael McMillan, Marie Hunter, NH Lakes District health service administrator, and Shawn Ebert, medical director for Omineca Lakes District, where in attendance.
“This basically all came to pass when the chips were down and we were getting ready to sign for a loan and sign for a lease,” said Wayne Svehla, BLMCS co-vice president. “That’s when Northern Health jerked the rug out from under us.”
Without NH health recruiting for clinic doctors, Van Tine said that the society lost its reason to exist.
“If we cannot be assured of having doctors to work in it, there’s no point in proceeding with it,” she said.
Daniella Oake, president of the BLMCS, also expressed surprise at the sudden withdrawal of support.
“That’s what disappointed us the most,” Oake explained. “We worked towards this vision the whole time with the understanding that they were on board and then in this last little bit it fell apart.”
The reasons for the NH’s decision were explained in terms of financial liability, said Van Tine.
“NH expressed concern about the financial liability that we would be taking on as a group to open up the clinic,” she said. “They felt with the new facility becoming available in 2015, they wanted to put doctors temporarily into the hospital now and have them move into the clinic that will be built into the new hospital.”
The BLMCS had raised approximately $38,000 locally towards the project, and had been awarded a $50,000 ‘matching funds’ grant from the Nechako-Kitamaat Development Fund (NKDF).
The NKDF grant was not activated, as money raised was being reserved for when all the details of the clinic had been ironed out.
“We made a resolution to never touch the funds until we were sure that we were going to be able to open,” Van Tine said. “The largest donation was from the health auxiliary [$25,000], and that has been returned. The rest of the funds will be dispersed to make payments on outstanding legal bills. [Anything left over] will go back to the health auxiliary.”
Most of the costs so far have been borne by volunteers and small grants. Engineering was provided without fee, and the clinic’s lease on space was very flexible and does not hold BLMCS liable for payments.
After canvassing society membership, the board of directors of BLMCS voted on Aug. 7, 2013 to dissolve the society.
“We leave with our heads held high,” Van Tine said on behalf of the board of directors and BLMCS members. “We worked very diligently to try and provide a better health care system in Burns Lake. Perhaps in the future this community will see that vision of a community-owned, not-for-profit medical clinic come to pass.”
Northern Health CEO Michael McMillan was not available for comment at press time.