CALGARY – Three doctors have testified about an elaborate queue-jumping scheme that saw deep-pocket donors of the University of Calgary rewarded by being sent to the front of the line for cancer screening at a public clinic.
Dr. Jonathan Love, a Calgary gastroenterologist, testified Friday he tried to stop the practice by flagging it to colleagues and superiors.
“I don’t know about you, but where I come from (donating) is not really charity if you get a reward, right?” Love told a lawyer at the inquiry examining queue-jumping in Alberta’s health system.
Love and two other doctors added their voices Friday to earlier testimony from booking clerks at the publicly funded Forzani and MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre.
The clerks testified that from around 2009 to 2011, patients from the private Helios Wellness Centre were being seen quickly for routine colon cancer tests, forcing other Albertans to wait.
The inquiry has heard that Helios patients were referred, examined and treated in weeks or months while ordinary Albertans waited three years or more to be seen.
Love says he got suspicious when he was directed to see a Helios patient for a routine test on very short notice.
He said he paid a visit to the Helios clinic, located two floors down from the Forzani clinic in a building on the Foothills Medical Centre grounds.
He said one Helios doctor showed him around the facility and “volunteered that on some basis it was a reward for the philanthropic community of the University of Calgary,” said Love.
“I tried not to look surprised. I said, ‘Oh, interesting.'”
The Forzani clinic was hailed as a groundbreaking achievement when it opened as a joint partnership between the University of Calgary and the province in 2008. It was the first stand-alone colon cancer testing clinic, checking 10,000 or more patients a year and freeing up vital acute-care beds in hospitals.
The inquiry has heard the Forzani founder and driving force was Dr. Ron Bridges, the current associate dean in charge of clinical affairs for the faculty of medicine at the University of Calgary.
Clerks have testified the Helios patients were being funnelled to the front of the queue through Bridges, who is slated to testify when the inquiry hearing resumes on Feb. 19.
Dr. Mark Swain, the head of gastroenterology for the Calgary region, said he, too, had heard the rumours of queue-jumping involving Bridges.
“More than one person had suggested that the Helios clinic was established as a reward for donors to the university,” Swain testified.
Forzani clinic director Dr. Alaa Rostom and his boss, Calgary health region director Dr. Francois Belanger, have testified they became aware of queue-jumping concerns in March 2012, but didn’t investigate them or confront Bridges directly.
Swain told the inquiry that he was not surprised. He said Bridges is a man of immense stature and authority in the medical community and not one to be trifled with.
“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 university fundraiser, 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.
Rostom has testified that while he ran the medical side of the Forzani clinic, Bridges was the man who hired him.
He has testified that when he learned about Bridges allegedly fast-tracking patients in early 2012, he didn’t investigate but instead sent out a memo to all staff warning them that queue-jumping was not allowed.
The University of Calgary did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment on the allegations and messages left with Bridges were not returned. No one at Helios has responded to an interview request from The Canadian Press.
Valerie Boswell, a doctor who helped pre-screen patients at the Forzani clinic, said she was stonewalled and rebuffed when she tried to get answers from administrators on the Helios patients.
Boswell said she once phoned Helios to find out what they were about and was instead “grilled” by the person on the other end of the phone on how she got the number and why she wanted the information.
A Helios brochure put online by the brochure’s designer indicates the clinic offers a wide range of preventative treatments to select clientele for $10,000 a year, or $15,000 a year for a couple.
Boswell said at one point she challenged Rostom and the administrators at a meeting about the queue-jumping.
“They kind of looked at each other and Dr. Rostom said, ‘This is not a hill we want to die on,'” she said.
Staff have testified the fast-tracking stopped in the spring of 2012, around the time that Premier Alison Redford announced the public inquiry to look for any queue-jumping in the system.
— By Dean Bennett in Edmonton