Fee-based primary care services increasing barriers to access, say officials of Ottawa based community health centre

By Andrea Bennett

Officials of a south end community health centre are speaking up following reports that an Ottawa based health clinic is charging patients a membership fee for access to a nurse practitioner.

Following some confusion related to the two clinics having similar names, Kelli Toner, executive director of South East Ottawa Community Health Centre, said they want to differentiate themselves from the South Keys Health Centre, and is reminding residents that they will not be changing to a fee-based healthcare model.

The South East Ottawa Community Health Centre is one of six community health centres in Ottawa, and one of over 100 across the province, said the executive director.

“We’re a team-based model of care and work to serve communities that face barriers to accessing health care services,” explained Toner. “We seek out people in the community who have complex health needs and might need additional supports in order to be well.”

She goes on to say, the community health centre supports residents who don’t have access to a family doctor, including new Canadians and people who are struggling financially and unable to afford a subscription.

“We have doctors, nurse practitioners, and a number of other disciplines under our roof that work together to provide holistic care in a way that’s breaking down those barriers,” added Toner.

Based on data collected by the community health centre, they’re serving populations with more complexities, including financial barriers.

According to Toner, on average, the health service has reduced emergency room visits across the city, and has proven to be effective in serving the community’s health needs, she pointed out.

Toner explained they’re seeking additional provincial funding to better serve Ottawa communities, in order to invest in team-based care that reduces barriers to access for low-income community members.

“We’re speaking up because of concerns around a two-tiered system that allows people who can pay to have access and people who can’t pay not to have access,” she added. “We know these kinds of models exacerbate issues around access and poor health outcomes overall.”

While Toner said she’s aware some clinics began charging a fee for service in recent weeks, she added that it’s important to raise concerns around this type of model and the impact it has our communities.

“We’re concerned about the number of people who are desperate for access to primary care who might try to sign up for a subscription like this that might not serve their needs,” she explained.

The community health centre’s executive director stressed the importance of mantaining primary care health models without barriers – and she told listeners that this model could further benefit our communties with an increase in resources and staff.

“There are providers in our community that would be able to do more and provide additional primary care access if they were given the teams they needed,” she pointed out. “There are other team-based primary care models in our community that do exceptional work and we need more to serve our population.”

While the province is investing $30 million this year and next into primary care, community health centres have submitted an investment request to the province, with the goal of expanding service as the healthcare system faces challenges, expressed Toner.

The South East Ottawa Community Health Centre is calling on the province to ramp up investments while many community members are without a family doctor.

“There have been substantive increases in mental illness and substance use challenges, housing and food security being key factors in people’s wellness,” she said. “The system was strained before the pandemic and additional investments in primary care should be happening sooner rather than later.”

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