Inquiry hears Calgary queue-jump scheme set up to reward university donors

CALGARY – An inquiry has heard that a private clinic at the centre of an alleged queue-jumping scheme was created to reward donors of the University of Calgary, with patients funnelled through one of the most powerful doctors in the province.

Dr. Mark Swain, the head of gastroenterology for the Calgary region, says he heard those rumours about the Helios Wellness Centre, but never followed them up.

“More than one person had suggested that the Helios clinic was established as a reward for donors to the university,” Swain testified Friday at Alberta’s preferential access inquiry.

University officials did not immediately respond to the allegations, but indicated they would likely have something to say later in the day.

Clerks at the Forzani and MacPhail Calgary Colon Screening Centre have already testified that from around 2009 to 2011, patients from Helios were moved to the head of the line for non-urgent tests.

Both the Forzani centre and private Helios clinic operate out of the same building at the Foothills Medical Centre, the biggest hospital in Calgary.

The Forzani clinic opened in 2008 as a joint initiative of the University of Calgary and the provincial government.

Funded by taxpayers, it was the first stand-alone colon cancer screening centre in the nation. It sees more than 10,000 patients a year.

Forzani staff have testified the wait in 2010 for an ordinary Albertan to get in was two to three years, but said Helios patients under the care of Forzani founder Dr. Ron Bridges were being fast-tracked and seen within weeks or months.

Swain, along with Forzani director Dr. Alaa Rostom and Calgary region director Dr. Francois Belanger, have testified they heard complaints about Bridges fast-tracking his patients through the queue, but did not investigate it or confront Bridges directly.

Rostom said he didn’t have enough evidence to do so and Belanger said he acted on the recommendations of Rostom.

Swain, whose authority did not extend to the Forzani centre, said another consideration was that Bridges is the associate dean in charge of clinical affairs for the faculty of medicine at the University of Calgary.

“He would be one of the most powerful and significant people in the faculty of medicine,” said Swain.

“And (he) historically has friendships with individuals within AHS (Alberta Health Services) who have significant positions of authority.”

Swain said Bridges is a key fundraiser and manager, runs the clinics where all academic physicians at the Foothills see patients, and decides which doctors gain privileges to do colon cancer tests at the Forzani clinic.

“That is a person that I think you’d have to have a lot of self confidence to raise a concern about,” said Swain.

Bridges is set to testify at some point when the inquiry resumes on Feb. 19 in Calgary.




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