Wabano Centre health clinic failing clients, former staff say

The Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, recently accused of workplace harassment and misuse of funds, now faces allegations of mismanagement and a lack of resources that have created a “revolving door” of medical staff and, subsequently, patient care that suffers, according to former staff.

Staff member says she quit after being pressured to come to work sick during COVID-19 pandemic

Ricki Bertrand said he isn't satisfied with the care he received at the Wabano Centre's health clinic. (Mathieu Theriault/CBC)

The Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, recently accused of workplace harassment and misuse of funds, now faces allegations of mismanagement and a lack of resources that have created a "revolving door" of medical staff and, subsequently, patient care that suffers, according to former staff.

The City of Ottawa — one of the main funders of the non-profit — is currently investigating complaints of harassment, bullying and improper use of funds within Wabano.

Now former workers at the centre have come forward to say the high turnover of staff impedes the centre's ability to fulfil its mandate, which is to provide health and social services to Indigenous people in Ottawa.

CBC has agreed not to identify former staff members who came forward due to fear speaking out could hurt their prospects of future employment.

Nurse quit over COVID-19 protocol

One nurse told CBC she quit over Wabano's handling of pandemic protocol. She said she was pressured to come to work last September despite having a sore throat and headache, then was later sent home after speaking with a doctor.

She took her concerns about that incident and what she described as "unsafe" COVID-19 screening policies to human resources, which brought in the occupational health and safety team. That team has no medical background, she said.

"Meanwhile, we were starting to find out that this virus could be airborne … I didn't feel safe or supported," she said, adding it was ultimately the reason why she left.

"I just couldn't take it anymore and I realized if I'm not well with my physical or mental health, I can't take care of anyone else."

Wabano did not respond to queries about its COVID-19 protocols, but did say in a statement the centre worked with Ottawa Public Health to deliver more than 24,000 vaccinations since February.

"We are proud of our vaccination record and that not one of our Indigenous seniors has lost their life due to COVID," executive director Allison Fisher said in an email. 

The Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health has provided health and social services to the Indigenous community in Ottawa for more than two decades. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Patients have complex, traumatic backgrounds

Another nurse practitioner who left the centre said the high turnover rate in the medical clinic has affected patient care.

She said many patients have complex and traumatic backgrounds and it is difficult for them to repeatedly explain their history to new providers.

"It really gets to them. They start to finally trust people and then they leave. And I think for certain people it's hard to open up to health-care workers, especially if they're non-Indigenous," she said.

Fisher did not respond to questions regarding staff turnover in the clinic, but said the number of patients has increased each year since 2019.

'Downright dread'

Ricki Bertrand, 55, said he went to Wabano for care where a nurse ordered an HIV test but before the results came back, she left her job and he was assigned to a new doctor.

Bertrand was under the impression someone would call him about the results but didn't hear anything for 10 months. He said when he called the centre he was initially told there was no record of his test. Forms were located and results were relayed by a receptionist instead of a nurse or doctor.

He tested negative, but the delays left him worried and stressed.

"As I waited, time passed and that waiting became impatience, and that impatience became fear and apprehension, which led to downright dread," said Bertrand, who lives with autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Wabano was unable to comment on Bertrand's case due to patient confidentiality.

WATCH: Man waits 10 months for results of HIV test from Wabano Centre: 

‘Downright dread:’ Man waits 10 months for results of HIV test from Wabano Centre

1 year ago
Duration 0:46
Ricki Bertrand says he waited 10 months for the result of an HIV test done at the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health — and when he called to ask, he was told there was no record of the test. The results were eventually located by a receptionist at the centre.

Lack of training

Medical receptionists at Wabano's health clinic also receive inadequate training, according to two who used to serve that role.

"I got anxiety even thinking about going into work," one said, adding help was never available when sought out.

"It was making me cry … I was miserable, and I didn't want to be miserable," said the other.

Financial statements obtained by CBC show the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care gave Wabano more than $6 million for the health centre between 2018 and 2019.

Despite that funding, there is a lack of resources and staff at the walk-in clinic are pressured to see as many clients as possible, according to former staff members.

"These people were not well, they were very complex. They need as much help as possible," said the nurse who left over safety concerns.

"We weren't allowed to provide high-quality care. From my perspective, it was really the bare minimum."

Joanne Plummer recently left her job at the Wabano Centre. She brought her concerns about workplace harassment and the misuse of donor and taxpayer funds to the City of Ottawa and CBC because she said some client needs aren't being met. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Privacy concerns

Joanne Plummer, a former financial benefits worker at Wabano who initiated the City of Ottawa investigation into Wabano, said she also has concerns about client privacy.

Plummer, who worked in the housing department, said she had full access to medical records and the high turnover of staff likely means many others have had the same access.

"This is a privacy issue. The client's medical records should not be exposed to everyone who works at Wabano," she wrote in an email to CBC.

Recently, Plummer filed a complaint about the matter with the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.

In a statement, Fisher said the centre has been operating a "small and successful medical clinic" for 22 years and offers "wrap-around services" like housing, food and mental wellness services for clients who require additional support.

"Wabano's medical clinic team works tirelessly to provide excellent care to our Indigenous clients and will continue to focus on their important work," Fisher wrote. 

From January 2018 to July 30, 2021, Ontario's Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development received five complaints about the Wabano Centre, including four health and safety complaints where no violations were found. One employment standards claim about vacation pay was resolved with voluntary compliance by Wabano. 

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