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Lobbyists, Telus and BC Health Care

Island Health’s eating disorder contract with the corporation is raising questions about the future of public care.

Andrew MacLeod 22 Dec 2023The Tyee

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at .

A mental health advocate has raised concerns about a B.C. government contract that will see Telus Corp. provide services to people living with eating disorders.

Increased services are badly needed, said Jonathan Morris, CEO of the B.C. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association, but must be integrated with the public system and based on the guidance of people with lived experience.

“When you’re designing services, you really need to involve people who will use those services,” he said. “That, to me, is a non-negotiable.”

Last week The Tyee reported that Island Health, the government body that provides health care on and around Vancouver Island, has awarded a contract for eating disorder services to the large, publicly traded telecommunications corporation Telus.

The deal was made in a year when the provincial government turned to the B.C. Supreme Court to resolve a dispute over Telus extra-billing in some of its clinics and the company treated a couple of dozen NDP cabinet ministers, MLAs and other officials to lunch at an exclusive Victoria club.

The contract is the result of a request Island Health put out a year ago seeking proposals from organizations “with expertise in eating disorders” to provide virtual and in-person counselling and support services, including access to psychiatrists, psychologists, dietitians and primary care providers.

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating are complex mental illnesses “involving relentless unhealthy thoughts and behaviours towards food, weight and body shape,” according to Island Health.

The care was to be for adults or young adults who have had a persistent struggle with an eating disorder who have not benefited from traditional recovery-focused treatment.

“We recognize that eating disorders have one of the higher mortality rates among people living with a mental illness, so there’s absolutely a critical need to improve access to care for people,” Morris said. The CMHA has heard from people living with a range of eating disorders that more early intervention and preventive treatment services are needed.

It’s not an area the CMHA provides services in and the agency did not submit a bid, Morris said. But he was aware of the call for proposals and the hopes people in the community had for it.

“There was real interest from people living with eating disorders to see strong in-person care, care that can really help people stay attached over time, care that can really help people who are having a hard time with their illness.”

It will be up to Telus, Island Health and anyone else involved in providing the services to show that they are accessible, available and able to meet the need, Morris said.

“I do know we can’t have services that leave any group behind, including people whose symptoms can get in the way of them presenting as being ready for care.”

Representatives from Telus have not responded to requests for comment.

Nor has anybody from Island Health been made available for an interview. A spokesperson confirmed that Island Health has awarded a contract for services for people with eating disorders, but declined to say who had won it, whether there were competing proposals, what the terms of the contract are or how much money it was for.

“After a rigorous review process, one proponent was selected this fall and the service is beginning to support clients,” the spokesperson said. “We will have more details to announce soon.”

The health authority has received $1.2 million from the province to spend over three years on eating disorder services, which it says will mainly be focused on services for adults.

According to one person living with an eating disorder who was referred to Telus, patients receive a code that allows access to health services the company provides digitally.

They said the service did not appear in any way tailored to people with eating disorders and seemed no better than going online and searching randomly for a counsellor.

Celeste Macevicius, who has been involved in supporting friends with eating disorders, told The Tyee that Island Health has rejected offers from people with lived experience to provide input.

“As I understand it, nobody with lived experience of an eating disorder was consulted in designing the [request for proposals] or putting it out,” she said.

Macevicius is connected to the group Vancouver Island Voices for Eating Disorders but stressed that she was speaking only for herself.

It’s unclear why Island Health chose to contract out the service to a corporation rather than provide it itself, which is generally preferable, Morris said.

“I think it’s important to structure things in ways that create those opportunities for publicly funded health care to stay in community in publicly funded entities’ hands,” he said.

While there is already much private sector involvement in the delivery of health-care services in B.C. and Canada, he said, the key is that the services offered by Telus or any other company need to be well integrated into the broader health-care system.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix has been unavailable for an interview.

Telus, a company worth $35.8 billion with Vancouver headquarters, has expanded into health care in recent years, seeing it as a way to differentiate itself from its telecommunications competitors and grow revenues.

By 2020, the company had spent more than $2.5 billion on forays that included buying health clinics and becoming a major provider of electronic medical record services.

Along with Telus president and CEO Darren Entwistle, consultants lobbying the provincial government for the company include former BC NDP executive director Raj Sihota, former NDP provincial director Michael Gardiner, Health Minister Adrian Dix’s former chief of staff Stephen Howard and former NDP senior adviser Christina Rzepa.

Entwistle is registered to lobby the five regional health authorities, the Nisga’a Valley Health Authority, the Provincial Health Services Authority and the Health Ministry on “communicating with the Government of British Columbia about various health solutions and services (offered by Medisys, Akira and other Telus Health entities) including virtual care, remote health monitoring and symptom triage systems.”

Records also show that earlier this year Telus gave an “informational luncheon at the Union Club to provide overview of Telus’ contributions to B.C.” to 26 NDP cabinet ministers, MLAs and officials at a cost of $18.32 per person. The Union Club is a 145-year-old private club a short distance from the legislature.

A year ago B.C.’s Medical Services Commission filed for an injunction in the B.C. Supreme Court alleging the Telus LifePlus program’s billing practices contravened the Medicare Protection Act. The parties settled the dispute in April with an agreement the corporation will no longer offer access to family doctors for patients who pay thousands of dollars in fees.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, BC Politics

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