GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Patients of the rheumatology program at University of Michigan Health-West, located at 4055 Cascade Rd. SE in Grand Rapids, are now looking elsewhere for their care.

On Oct. 31, the rheumatology office is closing its doors. The medical group revealed the news in a letter to patients dated July 15.

Kentwood resident Debbie Bukovietski has seen rheumatologists around the world for nearly 50 years. So has her daughter for most of her life.

Bukovietski told News 8 on Monday that doctors with the program at University of Michigan Health-West are among the best.

“They’ve been amazing,” Bukovietski said. “They listen well. They’ve worked with me well and with my daughter. I know other patients who have been there. They’ve very compassionate.”

Rheumatologists do essential work for patients, treating autoimmune and inflammatory diseases that can affect joints, muscles, tendons, blood vessels, the skin and more. It’s treatment that can last throughout people’s lives.

“So many people’s lives, just day in and day out, are affected by this,” Bukovietski said. “If you have to wake up in the morning and chart your route from your bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen, just because you’re not sure you’re going to make it, because your joints are so painful … you want to have a doctor that you can rely on.”

Earlier this summer, when Bukovietski received a letter that the program would shut down, she couldn’t believe it.

“I was heartbroken,” Bukovietski said.

University of Michigan Health-West confirmed the news in a statement to News 8 on Monday.

“All decisions at UM Health-West are based on what is best for our patients,” a spokesperson said in the statement. “This includes the closing of our rheumatology program, a decision that became necessary due to long wait times leading to a lack of access.”

Bukovietski said their reasoning doesn’t make sense.

“I don’t see how long wait times means, ‘Let’s just shut the whole thing down,’” Bukovietski said. “It seems like an extremely illogical response to me to shut down a clinic of rheumatologists.”

In the letter sent to patients, the medical group said, “this is an extremely challenging time for Rheumatology across the country with poor access and not enough Rheumatologists to serve the clinical demand.”

“West Michigan is not immune to these complex challenges,” the letter went on to state.

Bukovietski said that rheumatology is “notoriously underfunded.” She added that finding a good doctor is essential because it’s someone patients see throughout their lives.

“That’s the thing about rheumatologists,” she said. “They’re not just one and done, where they find a problem and they fix it and off you go. They are with you for this long slog. For this long journey.”

The medical group also told News 8 it’s been referring patients to “the largest rheumatology provider in the region” and will continue to do so until the office closes. University of Michigan Health-West also said it will connect patients to other providers if requested.

“We are working diligently to provide clarity and to ensure a warm transition to every patient,” the medical group said.

In the meantime, University of Michigan Health-West is keeping all existing appointments leading up to Oct. 31.

The infusion center will remain open, continuing to serve patients whose treatment plans include infusions.

“All decisions at UM Health-West are based on what is best for our patients. This includes the closing of our rheumatology program, a decision that became necessary due to long wait times leading to a lack of access.

“To help patients access the care they need, our medical group has been referring most to the largest rheumatology provider in the region, and we will continue to do so as we prepare to close these clinical services Oct. 31. If patients have another preference, we will help them connect with other programs that also are available in the region.

“In the meantime, we are coordinating communication between patients, their primary care providers, and with their preferred rheumatology provider to ensure a seamless referral process. We are working diligently to provide clarity and to ensure a warm transition for every patient.”

University of Michigan Health-West