British Columbia

DTES at risk of losing only Indigenous-run HIV treatment centre, advocates warn

An HIV treatment program offered by the Vancouver Native Health Society could be moved to a different facility this spring. Indigenous advocates fear the service would lose its culturally sensitive treatment options if run by a different organization.

Vancouver Coastal Health says services won't be disrupted but could be moved to a different space

Elder Dalannah Gail Bowen says the Vancouver Native Health Society is a special place, and if certain services move, she says patients likely won't know where to find them. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

An Indigenous-run health centre on the Downtown Eastside will soon have to make a bid to Vancouver Coastal Health if it wants retain funding for its unique HIV treatment program.

For two decades, the Vancouver Native Health Society has offered unique culturally sensitive treatment for HIV patients in the DTES by combining spiritual healing, western medicine, and Indigenous staff through the Positive Outlook Program.

But Lou Demerais, the organization's executive director, says POP's funding contract with Vancouver Coastal Health ends March 31, and this time around, the health authority is letting other health centres bid to take over the service, rather than renew the contract.

"They've told us there's no guarantee that we'd be the winning bid, even though we have the expertise," Demerais told CBC News. "We wonder why, after 20 years, they're doing this, when they haven't given us real reason for doing it."

Demerais says staff at VNHS met with representatives from VCH on Thursday to discuss the possibility of a replacement program that could land in a different, potentially non-Indigenous facility.

Vancouver Coastal Health maintains treatment for HIV patients will not be disrupted following the expiration of the contract. (Associated Press)

Following guidelines

According to VCH, the health authority, in putting POP services up for bid, is following organizational guidelines. It says the VNHS is welcome to bid on the service.

A spokesperson said there will be no disruptions in services for HIV clients that frequent the program.

But Demerais says the service will likely be halted following the expiration of the contract, and he's unsure if VNHS will be submitting a bid.

"We haven't seen the specs yet, and we don't know whether the new specs will require us to either alter direction, [or go in a] totally different direction," he said. "Over 20 years, we've come to know [what our patients] needs are."

"Quite a number of people who have been reliant upon the program for a number of years now will have to find similar kinds of services either elsewhere or wait and hope that similar services  are recreated under another agency."

Lou Demerais, the executive director of the Vancouver Native Health Society, says he's unsure of the Positive Outlook Program's fate. (Twitter)

Open to non-Indigenous facilities

According to the First Nations Health Authority, the VNHS is the only Indigenous primary care facility of its kind in the DTES and any disruption to the services it offershould be minimized.

But community advocates fear that if a non-Indigenous health centre acquires the services, it won't be able to provide the same level of culturally-sensitive care.

"VNHS is the only place where you can experience traditional healing practices in a cultural way," said Dalannah Gail Bowen, an elder who was asked on Thursday to facilitate a rally to save the service.

"Nobody can replace an Indigenous health practice by being non-Indigenous and believing you can deliver the service," she added.

"It's not the same."