Inquiry finds queue-jumping occurred in Alberta, recommends changes

EDMONTON – An inquiry has found that queue-jumping has occurred in Alberta’s health-care system and an environment exists in which it could happen again.

“The allegations of … individuals and the claim that it was not uncommon for senior executives to receive requests for expedited care proved to be unfounded,” says a report by Justice John Vertes released Wednesday.

“However … the inquiry did in fact learn of incidents of improper preferential access and also identified several systemic issues that could foster an environment conducive to such improper access.”

Vertes made several recommendations to help prevent abuses in the province’s $16-billion health-care system.

He suggested the definition of queue-jumping and prohibitions against it need to be strengthened. He said it should be mandatory to report instances when patients are being pushed to the front of the line and he added that whistleblowers should be protected.

Vertes also said doctors should never give priority under the guise of “professional courtesy” to other medical professionals unless there is an emergency or compelling reason.

The inquiry was called by Premier Alison Redford in response to a report by the Alberta Health Quality Council which found a variety of problems involving patient wait times and administrative confusion.

Vertes, a retired member of the Northwest Territories Supreme Court, heard testimony from prominent Albertans including Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, also an emergency room doctor, and Sheila Weatherill, former head of Edmonton’s Capital Health Region.

But the inquiry produced few sparks until it began hearing testimony concerning the Forzani and MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre, a public facility on the University of Calgary campus.

Witnesses testified that the centre gave preferential treatment to patients from the Helios Wellness Centre, a private clinic, also on university grounds, which charges members $10,000 a year for health services. Testimony suggested that between 2008 and 2012, Helios patients were treated within weeks or months — well ahead of the three-year wait other patients had to endure.

Some believed the rapid treatment was a reward for donors to the university. The inquiry heard that Helios donated $200,000 or more annually to fund medical scholarships and other activities at the University of Calgary.

Staff who worked at the public screening clinic testified that the booking system was in such disarray that referrals from Helios were being slotted in randomly.

Vertes addressed that issue by recommending that a standardized referral and booking system be developed.