Access to gender-affirming health care in Nova Scotia has just become more difficult. The province’s only doctor performing gender-affirming surgeries has announced he will no longer be offering the service.
Advocates say this is part of a much larger problem, and will have a devastating impact if immediate action is not taken.
When it was announced in November 2020 that top surgeries would be covered through MSI, Riley Nielson-Baker says they immediately took the necessary steps to get on the list.
“It’s now May 2022. I’m still waiting to even get on the surgical consult list,” they said.
That wait is now going to be even longer, it seems, after the only plastic surgeon performing gender-affirming top surgeries in the province announced he will no longer offer them.
“We’re not surprised at all. It was bound to happen. The system is overwhelmed. It has no funding, it has no staffing,” Nielson-Baker said.
In a news release, the Halifax Sexual Health Centre says the doctor, Dr. Steven Morris, told them the decision was made after years of lobbing for proper MSI billing codes.
The centre’s executive director calls it a “massive step back.”
“It was a big celebration when Dr. Morris — I mean he would have got additional training to do this as well — and I mean it’s just a big deal to not have to coordinate with Montreal for every single patient,” said Abbey Ferguson.
Making matters worse, two specialist providers of surgery readiness letters, a requirement to get approved for surgery, are no longer accepting new patients due to capacity.
The non-profit community clinic says decisive action is needed, and decided to issue the news release.
“This is not usually our style, we usually have meetings with the Department of Health and Wellness. We have meetings with folks who we think can help it and it’s just come to a stop and this is urgent,” said Ferguson.
In light of the news, the province says multiple surgeons have stepped forward.
“(Several doctors) who have come forward for the short-term to be able to help continue providing service for folks who are imminently waiting,” said Michelle Thompson, the Minister of Health and Wellness.
The province says it is in the “early stages” of reviewing its gender-affirming care policy but Nielson-Baker fears no immediate government action sends a message that trans health and lives don’t matter.
“And that they are OK with the reality that this is going to cause severe mental distress on members of my community, and it will lead to people killing themselves,” they said.
In a series of tweets Friday, Nova Scotia Health said it wanted to assure people that “this life-saving care will continue to be available in Nova Scotia.”
“Nova Scotia Health has been working with health system partners since January of this year to improve access to this service and an expanded group of plastic surgeons will offer top surgery in Halifax once that planning is complete. That is expected to be in the very near term,” it said, without offering a timeline.
“Plastic surgery, like most branches of surgery, has been affected by service reductions due to COVID system pressures and patients requiring a variety of forms of plastic surgery are facing waits. We are committed to ensuring equitable access to care for this patient population.”
— with files from Alex Cooke