Addictions doctor Christopher Sankey weighs in on health cuts affecting Manitoulin patients

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MANITOULIN— The Manitoulin Expositor has been closely following the state of opiate addiction care on Manitoulin over the last few weeks, as Ministry of Health and Long Term Care (MOHLTC) cuts have led to methadone doctors on the Island, including Doctor Christopher Sankey, to withdraw their services, forcing some patients to travel off-Island to receive treatment and others unsure about their future.

Earlier this fall, the MOHLTC cut the fee doctors can charge for mandatory urine testing. Methadone patients are required to do urine screening from once a week to two times a week depending on the patient’s treatment and how long the patient has avoided illegal drugs. This change affected all opiate addiction clinics across the Island, but was especially felt by clinics with low volumes such as in Little Current. With smaller clinics in rural areas, doctors aren’t physically seeing patients as often and the urine testing was a major component in covering the operational costs of running the clinic. Of the 150 opiate addiction patients, the 26 Northeastern Manitoulin Family Health Team (FHT) patients have been transferred temporarily to the Espanola Family Health Team to continue care with Dr. Dressler, while Dr. Dressler has been continuing service with M’Chigeeng Health Service until this Friday, November 21, though The Expositor was unable to reach M’Chigeeng Chief Linda Debassige as of press time Monday to learn how the patients will access service after this Friday.

The Wikwemikong Sunrise Clinic was also forced to close its doors due to the MOHLTC changes, but was able to secure Doctor Suman Koka to continue opiate addiction treatment services in the community.

Minister of Health Doctor Eric Hoskins assured The Expositor during a previous interview that there would be a continuity of care for Manitoulin patients, and pledged his ministry’s support in helping Island health organizations with a long-term solution for their patients.

He also argued that the urine testing fee change was an evidence-based change and that there are a number of other billable services that make practices viable. However, Dr. Sankey contacted The Expositor stating that the billing change has drastically affected opiate addiction clinics and that the fee change was a poor decision on behalf of the MOHLTC.

“It is easy to blame the physicians when the system falls short,” began Dr. Sankey. “The fact is that the situation was no longer viable. Myself and the other doctors at the Sunrise Clinic didn’t own it, it was run by an outside company that did a good job managing the business side, but when the government cut costs by 30 percent with two weeks notice, it was too expensive for the clinic to keep things running.”

“The (government billing) cut was a situation where bad advice was given to the MOHLTC,” claimed Dr. Sankey. “They (the MOHLTC) went beyond cost savings and have done real, immediate harm (to opiate addiction service). Myself and the other Sunrise Clinic doctors did all we could to see patient care was properly transferred to the new doctor (in Wikwemikong). We were in touch with Dr. Koka and gave him all the patient information and left all the electronic medical records, with the patients’ permission. We did everything to help and were not happy at all with the affect the changes had on the patients. The bigger problem this ministry decision caused is amplified on Manitoulin, but it is affecting clinics and patients across Ontario, in the urban centres as well.

Dr. Sankey explained that other opiate addiction patient populations don’t have the same special interest advocacy that is occurring on Manitoulin, giving the example of an HIV patient in downtown Toronto or someone that doesn’t fit into a specific category.

“This decision by the ministry was ludicrous, illogical and ridiculous, as it is to blame physicians when the economics don’t make sense and you are reducing 30 percent of the funding,” continued Dr. Sankey.  “The physicians that gave the advice to the government that there was ‘excessive funding’ have shown to be irresponsible. They are out of touch with real opiate addiction care.”

FHT Director Judy Miller said that she hopes to meet with health care representatives from Wikwemikong and M’Chigeeng during the ‘Choices, Chances and Changes Conference’ this week in M’Chigeeng to continue discussions about a long-term solution for Manitoulin methadone patients.