Public meeting sees varying opinions on clinic proposal

While nobody would argue there is a physician shortage in Fort Frances, just what should be done about it was the topic of lengthy discussion at a public meeting here last night.
Well over 250 people packed into the Memorial Sports Centre auditorium to learn more about how the doctor shortage came to be, the current situation, and what a proposal for the Group Health Association taking over management of the Fort Frances Clinic would entail.
“We’re working our doctors to death,” said moderator Coun. Todd Hamilton, who also sits on the local physician recruitment and retention committee.
“The current model has to change, and that’s why we’re here tonight.”
Dr. Jason Shack, the newest physician in Fort Frances, said the operating model for the clinic has to change and that the GHA would “augment what we have here already.”
“The Group Health Centre knows what they’re doing. We need someone who knows how to manage a medical business,” he remarked.
Dr. Shack noted the community must act quickly, and as a team, because there is a doctor shortage nearly everywhere else and so other communities are competing for them.
“If we’re going to compete with communities, we need a unified voice,” he stressed.
He noted any new doctors who think of coming here will consider what the community is like to live in, where they will work, who they will work with, and many other things Fort Frances must keep in mind.
He also noted recent graduates are not willing to come into a community and pay money to start a new practice, or buy into an existing one, said Dr. Shack, who arrived here two years ago.
But former town councillor Sharon Tibbs said while there’s no doubt the town needs to recruit and retain doctors, she was wary of the way the proposal had been handled thus far.
She feared any use of “smoke and mirrors.”
“I have a real problem with the municipality becoming involved in financing if it doesn’t go to a public process and tender for the ability to run that clinic in that manner,” she remarked.
Tibbs also warned this current proposal may not be the ultimate solution to the shortage. “You must be aware that if you build it, they will not necessarily come. This is not baseball, this is health care,” she warned.
“I would agree that if we built it, they may not come,” replied Dr. Shack. “But if we don’t build it, they definitely won’t come.”
“How much will this cost us?” was a question voiced by many town residents at last night’s meeting.
While members of council were unable to divulge that at this time, it was said the financing requested by the GHA would be a 15-year interest-free loan. Mayor Dan Onichuk did refer to it as a “significant amount of money.”
Coun Hamilton said Thunder Bay currently pays about $250,000 a year for doctor recruitment, and that the cost of financing would be “much less than that.”
(While no amount was ever specified at last night’s meeting, a $1-million figure was bandied about by several people, including members of the panel).
Mayor Onichuk stressed the town has not been asked to buy the clinic, but to finance the purchase of it. “We’re not interested in running a clinic,” he remarked.
The mayor also noted a “local organization” has stepped forward with a proposal to buy the clinic, but no other details were revealed at last night’s meeting.
But Dr. Robert Algie said the offer involved buying the clinic and then leasing it back to GHA, adding this is profit-driven and not zero-percent interest financing like the proposal to the town.
Bob Dakin said he felt local doctors and the town should look to someone local, and not a group out of Sault Ste. Marie, to manage the clinic. “I’m flabbergasted we would go to someone on the outside,” he remarked.
“To think they’re going to move in and move jobs out is incorrect,” answered Dr. Algie, who also spoke earlier in the evening on the current situation regarding primary care here and elsewhere.
Other presenters included local MP Ken Boshcoff, who spoke on the history of physician recruitment in Thunder Bay, and John Rafferty, who represented local MPP Howard Hampton.
Coun. Hamilton also read out written statements from David Murray, former CEO of the Group Health Association and current CEO for the North Eastern Ontario Local Health Integration Network (LHIN), Dr. Nancy Naylor, a former president of the Fort Frances Clinic, and John Harrison, general manager of the Abitibi-Consolidated mill here.
All agreed a partnership with the Group Health Association would be beneficial to the Fort Frances area as a “turnkey solution,” in the words of Murray.
Dr. Naylor added the Group Health Centre, run by GHA in Sault Ste. Marie, “has proven itself as a centre of excellence for medical care.”
She also urged council “to assist in the transference of ownership before it become another Geraldton.”
And Harrison wrote the new clinic model supported by the GHA would “break down barriers” to recruiting new doctors here.
Greg Punch, with the Group Health Association, offered up its vision for primary health care in Fort Frances. He clarified GHA would not own the clinic per se, but would manage it.
It would be owned by a non-profit corporation, with a board of directors likely consisting of local physicians, GHA management, and community members (in the health care field or otherwise).
If a financing deal was struck, GHA then would have to get final approval from its board of directors in Sault Ste. Marie.
It then would apply to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to become a Family Health Team (FHT), and get ministry approval.
Then, a business plan would have to be developed and approved, and the FHT would be put into operation.
Punch stressed the GHA has been in existence for 30 years, and has an excellent reputation—nationally and internationally—for providing primary health care.
Besides comments made at the meeting, sheets were distributed so the public could leave the town with their suggestions on physician recruitment and GHA.
This information now will be considered by council and the local physician recruitment and retention committee.