Several Whistlerites will be left searching for a new place to receive medical care this fall.
In a Facebook post on Aug. 4, Dr. Cathy Zeglinski announced the doors to her practice, the Northlands Medical Clinic, will be shutting for good in mid-September — a decision she described as “heart wrenching.”
Since opening the clinic over a decade ago — she’s been practising in and around the community since the early ‘90’s — Zeglinski said she’s found it increasingly challenging to recruit and retain qualified, committed staff, whether as office assistants, family physicians or long-term business partners.
“For me, my staff are getting to the point where they can no longer afford to live here,” she said, adding that even a physician’s salary is no longer adequate. “Doctors are not the high income earners everyone thinks they are. A doctor cannot afford, especially if they’re starting out with student loans, to buy a house in Whistler. I had one woman who already owned a home in Maple Ridge that came here and said, ‘if I can’t afford to buy a house here, ride my bike to work, have a garden and have a dog, then I’m not interested.’”
It’s a problem that Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said she’s also experienced in her role as a partner and personal injury lawyer at local law firm Race and Company. “We have had the same issues with respect to getting paralegals and associate lawyers,” she said, adding that she was surprised and disappointed to hear the news of Northlands’ closure, particularly considering many of her clients see Zeglinski as their family doctor. “Certainly housing and other affordability issues are priorities for council and the community.”
Despite calling the resort home for almost 25 years, Zeglinksi herself was recently forced to move south to Squamish after being unable to find suitable accommodations in Whistler. While the municipality has recently implemented several strategies aimed at easing the pressure on Whistler’s rental market — from the Mayor’s Task Force on Resident Housing, to cracking down on illegal nightly rentals, to a soon-to-be-completed, multi-unit resident-restricted rental building in Cheakamus — many have been left wondering if it’s enough.
“I think the business community would like to see more happen faster with housing, because it’s such a crucial piece of the puzzle to growing a strong economic plan here in the community,” said Melissa Pace, CEO of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. “The business community is definitely wanting more, and sooner rather than later.”
While several of the challenges Zeglinksi has faced are a result of Whistler’s difficult economic situation, they’ve only been worsened by the current state of B.C.’s medical industry.
In B.C., general practitioners’ pay is determined by a fee-for-service compensation model. Basically, physicians bill the Medical Services Plan (MSP) each time they treat an MSP beneficiary. But those billable scenarios are fixed, with rates determined by the individual ailment being treated, and no extra funds doled out for the paperwork or extra work associated with being a family doctor. “A dental hygienist in Whistler bills $150 to clean your teeth. When I suture your nasty little mountain bike scar, I get $60,” Zeglinski explained. “What we’re caught with in Whistler is that we have the same rates as everybody in the province of British Columbia… I’m tied to a government income but I have expenditures that are tied to an upscale, international resort.”
And many of those expenditures, such as rent, are skyrocketing. “(Lease costs) are continuing to increase faster than most other costs of doing business in Whistler and there’s very little we as municipal council can do about that,” Wilhelm-Morden explained. “We’re continuing to work collaboratively with the Economic Partnership Initiative Committee on some of these issues.”
Pace said the Chamber is in much of the same boat as the municipality when it comes to their sway, or lack thereof, on corporate rent rates. “The starting point is educating the landlords on the importance of small business within this community and what an impact it has on the economy of British Columbia,” she said. “Having that in place would be a phenomenal step forward in ensuring small business stays alive and well within our resort.”
But in the meantime, Zeglinksi said it’s just too difficult for many local business owners to keep up — regardless of the nature of their business.
“The scariest thing for me is that as doctors, we’re an essential service,” she said. “When people are sick, they need access. They can’t go to emergency, that’s not the appropriate place. But if I can’t afford to run a business, then I can’t give them the care… We may be an essential service, but no one subsidizes us. We are a business, just like a pizza parlour.”