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Northern Alberta patients, advocates call for better HIV supports amid health-care restructuring

Two years ago, Brad Buxton grieved when he learned his psychologist of two decades was leaving Alberta Health Services (AHS) for the private sector.

The 63-year-old Edmonton resident has been receiving physical and medical care, including access to a psychologist, through the Northern Alberta Program since he was first diagnosed with HIV in 1998.

That level of care is why Buxton was surprised to hear there hasn’t been a psychologist for the Northern Alberta Program since March.

“My concern is not so much for me as it is for thousands of other people living with HIV or AIDS supposedly receiving care through the Northern Alberta Program,” Buxton said.

As Alberta introduces sweeping changes to its health care system, he and others want to see more supports in place for HIV patients.

What is the Northern Alberta Program?

The program, run out of the Kaye Edmonton Clinic at the University of Alberta Hospital, provides assessment, treatment, education and support for people with HIV in Edmonton and northern Alberta.

It also provides access to antiretroviral medicine and helps clients get referrals to primary care doctors.

In an email to CBC News, AHS spokesperson Chelsea Blair said they are hiring a psychologist for the program. 

In the meantime,  AHS has been offering monthly support groups for patients while they look for a candidate to fill the role.

“We are hopeful that it will be filled soon,” Blair said. 

A white man with short black hair looks up at the camera. He wears a white t-shirt and blue denim jacket.
Brad Buxton has been receiving physical and medical care through Alberta Health Services’ Northern Alberta Program, an HIV support program, since he was first diagnosed in 1998. (Submitted by Brad Buxton)

Buxton said the program’s psychologist counselled him about living with HIV, as well as a later diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

When he learned of the position’s vacancy, Buxton filed a complaint with AHS. He said he was told to contact the 24-hour mental health helpline.

“I’m not in a crisis situation, but I have a need for some ongoing psychological support,” Buxton said.

Lynda Phillips, a private psychologist in Edmonton who left the role in November 2021, confirmed a person had been hired to replace her. 

She says the demanding nature of the job is likely why finding a replacement has been difficult.

Group sessions often aren’t ideal for HIV patients

Mark Linford has been receiving care from the Northern Alberta Program since the 1990s. He says it has helped him manage his diagnosis.

“The care was good, but … now you’re lucky if you can get a [general practitioner], to see a psychiatrist or a psychologist,” Linford said.

Monthly group sessions he says aren’t ideal because patients need more hands-on care. It can also feel intimidating for LGBTQ patients like him.

“Back in the ’80s, when you were told you were HIV positive, everyone said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re gay,'” Linford said.

“When you go to these group sessions, there is a lot of heterosexuals, and when gay people get together, it’s like two separate things; [there’s] more learning and understanding.”

With Alberta’s revamped approach to health care introduced last week, Linford is worried about the future of the Northern Alberta Program. 

“A lot of these people now — if they’re not getting treatments since March — they’re either gone, or they’ve gone back to alcohol, drugs, possibly worse,” he said.

“What I’m scared of is, if the [Northern Alberta Program] shuts down or if we don’t get a psychologist, our group sessions are going to end.”

Vacant position creates a gap for patients: advocate

A woman sits in an office. She has grey hair, black glasses and wears a headset. She also wears a white sweater and a red poppy.
Catherine Broomfield, executive director of HIV Edmonton, said HIV patients want mental health support readily accessible and professionals who are attentive to the stigma HIV patients experience. (Aaron Sousa/CBC)

Catherine Broomfield, executive director of HIV Edmonton, a non-profit for those living with HIV/AIDS, said the unfilled position leaves a gap for HIV patients in receiving care. 

“Those living with HIV are facing a continued experience of stigma, discrimination [and] racism, on top of navigating their diagnosis and other aspects of living with HIV,” Broomfield said.

“To not have access to mental health supports would be, as for anyone, distressing.”

Broomfield said HIV Edmonton has been providing counselling since last year through a partnership with the City University of Seattle’s Edmonton Campus Counselling program.

The program’s been well-received, but she said community members want support to be readily available without exceedingly long wait times. HIV patients also want care from someone who is knowledgeable about the stigma they face.

“They know when they need support and ideally, there would be services available to them that are responsive and helpful,” Broomfield said.

As for Buxton, he wants to see more knowledge sharing among health staff.

“If you’re going to provide a full range of care and support through the Northern Alberta Program … then staff it at a reasonable level,” Buxton said.

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