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Efforts to save Vernon’s last walk-in clinic fall short

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Sterling Centre leadership disagree on basic history of support offered to the clinic
The Sterling Centre walk-in clinic in Vernon was set to close permanently as of Nov. 15. (Brendan Shykora/Morning Star)

There appears to be no agreement on the level of support the province has offered to the Sterling Centre, Vernon’s last walk-in clinic, which closed Nov. 15.

But what is clear is that the province won’t be able to save the clinic, and the clinic’s physicians believe it is the responsibility of Interior Health to fill the coming healthcare void in the community.

After the Sterling Centre announced in mid-October that it would close permanently, Vernon-Monashee MLA Harwinder Sandhu told The Morning Star that an offer was on the table from the Ministry of Health to help keep the clinic open.

However, Sterling doctor and medical director Dr. Chris Cunningham later said neither he nor anyone at the clinic had heard from the ministry since early September.

Last Wednesday, B.C. Minister of Health Adrian Dix told The Morning Star that the ministry, as well as Interior Health and primary care partners, “have been reaching out to clinic leadership on an increasingly frequent basis over the last year to discuss how we can help them keep the walk-in clinic open.”

Asked about Cunningham’s comment that the clinic hadn’t heard from the province since early September, Dix said “that simply isn’t true.” Dix said Interior Health and the ministry have been in “regular contact with Dr. Cunningham” regarding the offer of stabilization funding for the walk-in clinic, adding one of their most recent meetings with Sterling leadership was on Nov. 3.

On Thursday, Cunningham refuted that claim, saying there was no meeting on Nov. 3 and there hasn’t been one since September.

Dix provided a breakdown of what the ministry has done to keep the clinic open over the past year.

He said the Sterling clinic accepted walk-in stabilization funding totalling just over $38,000 to keep the clinic open from Feb. 1 to April 30; the same amount was accepted to keep the clinic open from Aug. 1 to Oct. 31; he then said the clinic declined stabilization funding totalling just over $296,000 for physician compensation and $75,000 per full-time equivalent for overhead costs to extend the clinic operations until March 31, 2024.

“In the end, it is clinic leadership’s decision to close or stay open,” Dix said, adding, “we will have more information on initiatives planned for Vernon in the near future.”

However, Cunningham says the temporary bridge funding was provided earlier this year, as it was to other similar clinics in Vernon and throughout B.C., to allow the clinics to remain open and allow time for the health authority to work with physicians and other partners to develop a sustainable option to meet the needs of unattached patients, but “this plan and support never materialized.”

He says the Sterling Centre was offered “the same standard contract that any family physician was offered at any health authority clinical setting, and this was proposed to us earlier in the year.” Cunningham also said Sterling did not accept the contract because the contract does not address “the core issue of being able to provide better care with team-based supports.”

Staffing shortages are the issue at the clinic, not doctor compensation, Cunningham said.

“Throwing money towards physicians is not what is needed here. This contract does nothing to address the immediate issue: providing an essential healthcare team in order for an increasingly larger group of unattached patients, with chronic complex medical needs, to be adequately managed. Providing compensation to physicians at our clinic does not change the complexity of the unattached patients we serve, nor does it allow us to provide better team based primary care,” Cunningham said.

“The patients are no further ahead with our current model of a single physician providing all this care in an episodic and isolated setting,” Cunningham added.

The doctor said many of Sterling’s physicians are already managing their full time practices elsewhere, and have very limited extra time to operate such a community clinic “which we believe Interior Health should be taking responsibility for.”

Cunningham reiterated that the clinic will indeed have its last shift on Nov. 15.

In March, the Ministry of Health extended stabilization funding for walk-in clinics across the province for a full year to give time for the ministry to develop a permanent funding approach for episodic care, the ministry said in an email. Walk-in clinics were given three options:

• A grace period of a full year to transition from episodic care to longitudinal practice while billing through the Longitudinal Family Practice model for both types of care.

• Service contracts equivalent to Urgent and Primary Care Centre rates, plus an additional overhead payment per full-time equivalent.

• If fee for service was their preference, to simply stay on fee for service without subsidy.

A key requirement was also to ensure services provided were mainly in-person rather than virtual, and the ministry notes most of the walk-in clinics accepted this offer.

Cunningham emphasized that in the wake of Sterling’s closure, a cooperative plan will be needed to service the community.

“The patients are the central part of this, and the unattached patients that don’t have access to adequate primary care, that’s what’s important here,” he said. “They need to be able to access that care. So how we do that, by whatever means, it needs to be done soon.”

Interior Health has previously said it was working to prevent the Sterling Centre from closing, but as of Friday, Nov. 10, those efforts appear to have been unsuccessful.

READ MORE: Doctor says province hasn’t helped to keep Vernon clinic open

READ MORE: Offer on the table from province to keep Vernon walk-in clinic open: Sandhu

Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started at the Morning Star as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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