Partnership applauded at grand opening

Left-right Are Dr. Karen Lundgard, County of Northern Lights Reeve Cheryl Anderson, Frank Lovsin, Northern Sunrise County Reeve Carolyn Kolebaba with M.D. of Peace Reeve Robert Willing behind her, Deputy Mayor of Peace River Elaine Manzer, and Dr. Laurene Willox.

Sunrise Medical Clinic opens despite AHS backing out

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

After over 15 years of hard work and advocacy by local doctors and municipalities, Peace River has a new medical clinic.

About 50 people attended a ribbon cutting and took guided tours at the grand opening of the Sunrise Medical Centre on Jan. 20.

“I want to thank Dr. Dave Willox for creating the vision, and now it’s come to fruition,” Peace River Mayor Tom Tarpey says.

He appeared via video while attending to the death of his mother.

The new primary care clinic was made possible by the Town of Peace River, Northern Sunrise County, the M.D. of Peace, and the County of Northern Lights working together.

Cheryl Anderson, County of Northern Lights Reeve, says, “This beautiful, beautiful facility is not only an asset to the community, but to know what can happen when we all come together in collaboration and work as one. With success comes new beginnings, new scopes and new opportunities for all of us.”

Municipal funds were added to the funds raised by Dr. Dave Willox from various local businesses. Major funders included Peace River Rotary, Mercer International [formerly DMI], Obsidian Energy [formerly PennWest] and Baytex Energy among others. All funders will be recognized in the facility.

The clinic sits on over an acre of land donated by the Lovsin family.

Tarpey says Dr. Willox’s original vision for what he called a “medical centre of excellence” is being fulfilled by both the new clinic and the neighbouring Rotary House, where patients and their families can stay while seeking care.

Northern Sunrise County Reeve Carolyn Kolebaba says the facility is needed for a growing region.

“By us doing this, we are hopeful that this will be good for the next 50 years. The other building wouldn’t have lasted. It was time and we just stepped up to the plate,” Kolebaba says.

Located near the Peace River Community Health Centre, the new 14,500 sq. ft. primary care centre has offices for 14 physicians; 25 exam rooms in two different styles; a conference room; administration offices; a covered front entrance; an outside patio for staff; and additional office spaces meant for Alberta Health Services [AHS] to use.

“The building was designed to be airy and spacious with a focus on natural lighting,” says Kolebaba.

“Patient comfort and convenience was taken into consideration throughout the process. The entire building was designed to accommodate mobility disabled.”

“It is practical, it is functional, and it is beautiful.”

Dr. Karen Lundgard says she worked in the old clinic building for 40 years and one week and the new clinic offers a nicer space to work and more privacy for patients.

She has been instrumental in getting the new clinic built.

“When ill health made Dave [Willox] no longer able to be our quarterback, I made it my mission to keep the dream alive,” Dr. Lundgard says.

“I did all the planning, we got all the bank accounts everything in place for a family care clinic, and overnight the election put a new party in power and there went our family care clinic. But Carolyn [Kolebaba] really shared our vision, and helped to push this forward.”

“It took a few years but we came up with a plan that Alberta Health Services would take over ownership of the building, relieving Northern Sunrise of the job to be the landlord. Unfortunately, certain AHS departments didn’t really share that vision and AHS hasn’t upheld their end of the agreement,” says Dr. Lundgard.

“Nonetheless, we are very happy to work with Northern Sunrise County as our landlord, we’re very grateful to the county, their council and ratepayers for their very generous support and for building this beautiful building in which we can work.”

Kolebaba says Northern Sunrise has committed to running the new facility for one year, but still hopes AHS will eventually take over.

Local AHS administrator Sandra Herritt has been supportive of the project since the beginning and attended the grand opening.

Peace River MLA Dan Williams, who also attended the opening, says, “Wonderful facility, cutting edge, a great opportunity for Peace River area to be able to make sure we can host the doctors that we need to provide the health services that the community needs.”

Williams says Northern Sunrise and all the stakeholders involved in building the new clinic should be incredibly proud, especially since it can be hard to access healthcare in rural areas.

Williams says he can’t speak to the details as to why AHS is not moving in to the facility, but he is always advocating for the community.

“I have been working with the county and stakeholders and the [Health] minister’s office to make sure that all voices are heard and their concerns are in a spot where everyone feels comfortable,” he says.

There are currently eight doctors working out of the new clinic. Another doctor who is on maternity leave will also join the new clinic in the fall.

Dr. Lundgard says while Dr. Willox’s poor health means he won’t be working out of the clinic, he did tour the facility when the walls were up.

The new primary care centre is also set up to make it possible to recruit more new doctors.

“We tried every permutation to try and figure out a way to build it such that we didn’t have to have new docs come fresh out of school and buy into a new clinic,” Dr. Lundgard says. “You put up financial barriers, they won’t come.”

Instead, Dr. Lundgard says each physician pays a lease cost in the new medical clinic, so the more physicians in the clinic, the lower the individual cost.

However, she also has concerns about the impact of proposed upcoming changes to doctor billing.

“I think the government needs to make a plan before they start slashing, because the current plan they’ve floated and the fee modifiers they were threatening to cut would have turned us all into doing walk-in clinic medicine where we get paid the same whether we spend five minutes with a patient or 25 minutes with a patient or 25 minutes with a patient,” Dr. Lundgard says.

Dr. Lundgard says Peace River doctors not only work in the clinic, but cover emergency room shifts, the hospital operating room, deliver babies and more.

“Rural doctors are a special breed,” she says. “We do a lot with the docs that we’ve got. People leave because they get burned out.

“It is going to threaten rural healthcare in Alberta, because if I was a new doc just finishing my residency and I knew this was what they were doing, I’d be looking for a place to practice in BC or Saskatchewan,” Dr. Lundgard adds.

“It’s just having the threat of doing this, it’s got everybody on edge. If they wanted to cause turmoil, they’ve done it.”

Williams says the Alberta Medical Association and the Province are still discussing the proposed billing changes through both a consultation and a negotiation process.

“As far as I understand the conversation for both those is continuing on and I understand they’re making progress,” Williams says.

Williams recently sponsored a controversial private members bill aimed at protecting the conscience rights of medical professionals. That bill has officially died on the order papers with the announcement that the government will seek to prorogue the first session of the Legislature this year.

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