GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — University of Michigan Health-West told patients it is closing a rheumatology program due to long wait times and lack of access. In an internal email obtained by News 8, the medical group president described a “broken” specialty and described a department struggling to work with the organization.

The center, located at 4055 Cascade Rd. SE in Grand Rapids, will close on Oct. 31. The medical group revealed the news to patients in a letter dated July 15.

Debbie Bukovietski of Kentwood has seen rheumatologists across the world for nearly 50 years. When she heard the U-M Health-West rheumatology program would close, she couldn’t believe it.

“I was heartbroken,” Bukovietski told News 8. “I was heartbroken because this particular doctor group … is amazing.”

“They listen well,” she went on to say. “They’ve worked with me, well with my daughter, and I know other patients who have been there.”

After a report published on Sept. 19, News 8 has heard from several other patients and staff members upset over the decision. One staff member sent News 8 an internal email that medical group president Raki Pai wrote to his colleagues. Another worker confirmed the note’s authenticity.

In the email, Pai acknowledged the potential ramifications of the closure.

“Regrettably, this will have an adverse impact on Rheumatologic patient care in our community,” Pai wrote. “It will be disruptive for our patients. Just know, these challenges made this decision incredibly difficult, but it is the right decision for the organization.”

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.

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

“That’s the thing about rheumatologists: they’re not just one and done … they are with you for this long slog for this long journey,” Bukovietski said.

EMAIL: ‘WE STRUGGLED TO FIND COMMON GROUND’

Notably, Pai said, “we struggled to find common ground and compromise in working together with the department.”

“As we bring new clinical services to our system, these new service lines will work best when leadership, primary care and specialty care physicians work closely together to support our established health system patients,” Pai wrote.

In a statement earlier this week, a spokesperson for the medical group told News 8 the decision to close “became necessary due to long wait times leading to a lack of access.”

“All decisions at UM Health-West are based on what is best for our patients,” the spokesperson said.

In the internal email, Pai called Rheumatology a “broken medical specialty” with not enough physicians to meet high demand. He said new patients had to wait “many months to a year to be seen.”

“As many of you know, this is a challenging time for Rheumatology across the country and in west Michigan,” Pai wrote.

Bukovietski doesn’t agree with the logic of closing the program.

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

Pai told his colleagues he recognizes “this is difficult news to receive.” But with these challenges over the last four years, Pai said they don’t see a viable path forward for the clinic. He also assured staff that no further clinic or service line closures are planned.

The medical group told News 8 it is connecting patients with other providers. It’s also keeping all existing appointments leading up to Oct. 31.

“If patients have another preference, we will help them connect with other programs that also are available in the region,” the spokesperson said. “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.”

The group’s infusion center will remain open, continuing to provide that service for Rheumatology patients and others.