The Department of Health and Wellness is suing a doctor in Antigonish in connection with her refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Attorney General, on behalf of the department, filed a notice of action in a Halifax court on Nov. 2 against Dr. Lesya Skerry, alleging breach of contract. Skerry was suspended from practicing as a general internist after she refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021.
Skerry hasn’t filed a defence and the allegations haven’t been tested in court.
Skerry completed her medical training, specializing in anesthesiology, in Ukraine in 1997. In 2014, after immigrating to Canada, Skerry entered Dalhousie University’s faculty of medicine via its IMG Clerkship Program. Each year, that program admits two qualified candidates who are international medical graduates into a clerkship at the medical school. Once those students complete that program, they can enter the Canadian Resident Matching Service (CaRMS) as a Dalhousie graduate.
Return of Service agreement
In June 2014, Skerry signed a Return of Service agreement with the Department of Health and Wellness in which the department would fund her final two years of medical school.
Skerry, for her part, would practice in one of three locations in Nova Scotia in need of a physician. Skerry would work at least a 37.5-hour work week, plus on-call hours, for 46 weeks a year for four years after the completion of her residency.
The agreement also said if Skerry terminated the agreement or otherwise failed to fulfill her obligations, she’d be required to pay $9,000 for each month of the return of service agreement she didn’t work. That amount would have to be paid back in a lump sum.
Skerry completed medical school at Dalhousie in 2016, and accepted a residency training program in internal medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. She started that program in June 2019. A month prior, the department, in consultation with Nova Scotia Health, gave Skerry the three locations where she could choose to practice once her residency was complete. She completed her residency in June 2020.
In July 2020, Skerry signed a conditional agreement to practice as a general internist in Antigonish, in Nova Scotia Health’s Eastern Zone. Her anticipated start date was Nov. 15, 2020.
The offer said Skerry would be subject to all medical staff disciplinary bylaws, rules, and regulations.
Request for exemption
On Sept. 29, 2021, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang announced a requirement that all employees of Nova Scotia Health would need to get the COVID-19 vaccination by Nov. 30, 2021.
On Nov. 21, 2021, Skerry submitted a request to the Department of Health to be exempt from getting the COVID-19 vaccination on religious grounds.
Later that month, on Nov. 30, Skerry learned that exemption request was denied. Skerry was suspended from practicing on Dec. 1, 2021, however, she was given 30-day “active — community without admitting” privileges that allowed her to work in the community at an off-site clinic.
In the statement of claim, Nova Scotia Health alleges that because of the change of her admitting privileges, Skerry wasn’t fulfilling the requirements of her return of service agreement, including taking part in on-call requirements for her specialty.
“On July 15, 2022, the Department wrote to the Defendant to remind her of the terms of her agreement, advised her that she had several months without providing services in accordance with the Agreement, and as a result, she was in breach of said Agreement,” the claim said.
According to the statement of claim, the department told Skerry she could write a letter explaining her situation. Skerry’s lawyer sent that letter on Oct. 5, 2022. That letter said Skerry’s objections to the COVID-19 weren’t because of religious beliefs, but rather because of her concerns about “possible short and long-term effects of the COVID-19 on the female menstrual cycle and reproductive system.”
Nova Scotia Health alleges that Skerry breached her agreement by “not providing Return of Service to the Department,” refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, which resulted in a reduction of her work hours as required under the agreement, failing to follow Nova Scotia Health rules and regulations, and failing to provide on-call services.
Nova Scotia is seeking $324,000, the balance of the return of service fee in a lump sum, as well as other costs.