Nova Scotia

Halifax Sexual Health Centre reaching 'unsustainable' level of demand

The Halifax Sexual Health Centre is appealing to the province to inject more funding into the charitable organization, saying the clinic has reached an "unsustainable" level of demand partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The independent, non-profit clinic is asking the province to consider funding more nursing care

Executive director Kate Calnan, right, speaks to CBC about the Halifax Sexual Health Centre's need for more nursing staff and support. (Robert Short/CBC)

The Halifax Sexual Health Centre is appealing to the province to inject more funding into the charitable organization, saying the clinic has reached an "unsustainable" level of demand partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Realistically, we are at capacity. So if we want to look at sustainability over the next two, three, five years, we can't do it currently," said the centre's executive director Kate Calnan. 

"We are filling a huge health-care gap, and if we weren't able to sustain operations and had to close the clinic, there's no question that the province and the health authority could not absorb our clients or be able to continue care in that way."

Like many health-care services, the centre cut back on everything it deemed "non-essential" in March and is gradually reopening. It's receiving hundreds of messages each day requesting services, and has to conduct its booking by opening up phone lines at the beginning of each month for people to make appointments.  

"What we've been observing is that we're filling up within a morning for an entire month. So then we're telling folks, okay, give us a call in a month's time and we'll try to book you in for the next month. And that first day, the phones are ringing off the hook," Calnan said. 

Bookings gone in two hours

On the day August bookings began, all the spots for the month were gone within two hours and administrative staff were overwhelmed.

"They hang up the phone for lunch and there's forty to fifty voice mails of more people wanting appointments," Calnan said. 

The centre offers services such as birth control and intrauterine device (IUD) insertions, sexually transmitted disease testing, gynecological care, prenatal care, and gender-affirming and transgender care, with a current rotation of nine or ten physicians and the clinic's part-time nurse. 

The Halifax Sexual Health Centre's list of services with prices. The clinic's services are free with a valid health card. (Robert Short/CBC)

The waitlist to see one of HSHC's physicians for gender-affirming care for transgender people is particularly long at seven months. 

Loren Baldwin, a gender-non-conforming, non-binary trans queer person, told CBC the Halifax clinic is the only place they feel comfortable going for medical care. 

Baldwin does not have a family doctor, and has occasionally visited other clinics where they did not feel as comfortable. 

"I go to mostly walk-in clinics, and they don't have the same type of training as far as using inclusive language as they do at the sexual health clinic," they said. "They're incredibly kind and they're always accommodating." 

Centre looking to expand fundraising

Running the clinic costs $700,000 per year. The clinic's primary source of funding comes from a percentage of the fee-for-service provided to its physicians through Medical Services Insurance (MSI) each time one of them sees a patient. It receives some funding through a network of organizations called Sexual Health Nova Scotia, which receives funding from the provincial government.

In 2019 the Halifax Sexual Health Centre received $117,340 directly from the Department of Health and Wellness to support its work at preventing sexually-transmitted blood-borne infections like HIV and syphilis. 

Calnan said if the province could fund a nurse practitioner or part-time social worker, it would make a big difference in the clinic's ability to serve the community. 
 
As a non-profit charity, the centre also gets funding from private donors and Calnan said she has been looking for ways to expand fundraising, which has also been challenging during the pandemic. 

In an email to CBC, the province said it is in "regular contact" with the HSHC "to ensure they are managing well, particularly during the pandemic."

"We are pleased to hear that their services have been maintained and that they have plans to broaden their fundraising efforts," the statement ended.  

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With files from Vernon Ramesar

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