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Health inquiry to shift focus

EDMONTON — Taking stage today at a public inquiry is what role, if any, the University of Calgary played in a queue-jumping scandal that occurred on its property and allegedly involved a high-ranking employee.

Dr. Ron Bridges, an associate dean in the faculty of medicine, is to testify in Calgary about his involvement with the privately run Helios Wellness Centre.

Clerks and doctors have already testified at the preferential health access hearing about a queue-jumping scheme they allege ran from 2008 to 2012.

The inquiry has heard how patients paid $10,000 each a year to join Helios, a private clinic that dispenses yoga, diet and exercise advice, and rents office space from the university. The non-profit group directed $200,000 or more a year to the university’s faculty of medicine, primarily to pay for scholarships for medical residents.

It has been alleged by witnesses that associate dean Bridges, with help from others, arranged to have Helios patients moved to the front of the line for colon cancer tests at the Forzani and MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre, which rents space from the university but is funded and operated by the province.

Testimony and patient charts indicate Helios patients were given express service at the screening centre — treated and tested within weeks or, at most, months — while everyone else waited two to three years or longer.

Regular patients who missed appointments were moved to the back of the three-year wait list, while Helios patients were immediately rebooked and treated.

Bridges had just begun to testify when the inquiry wrapped up for a few days last week. He is expected to address the queue-jumping allegations today.

University spokeswoman Leanne Yohemas declined to be interviewed.

“The University of Calgary does not comment on speculation or rumours. We will not be commenting on the current Health Services Preferential Access Inquiry until the hearing is complete and all testimony has been heard,” said Yohemas in an email.

The public colon cancer clinic, better known as CCSC, was founded in 2008 by Bridges, a nationally recognized leader in gastroenterology. Bridges had a key role in hiring the two people who lead the CCSC to this day: Dr. Alaa Rostom on the medical side and Darlene Pontifex on the business side.

Helios opened around the same time, two floors down from the CCSC in the university-operated Teaching, Research and Wellness Building on the grounds of the Foothills Medical Centre.

Helios founder Dr. Chen Fong is a professor of radiology at the University of Calgary and a nationally recognized leader in his field.

The inquiry has heard that Fong and Bridges are longtime friends and worked together on a university campaign that collected more than $300 million from 700 donors around the time both clinics opened.

CCSC staff and some doctors have testified that queue-jumping occurred in two phases.

The first phase was from 2008 to 2010, when the clinic was just opening and was run by the University of Calgary.

Pontifex testified that the startup was a clerical nightmare. The clinic inherited thousands of names on a waiting list for tests. Plus, the doctors who were coming in to work at the clinic had their own waiting lists of patients and didn’t want to see those patients pushed to the bottom of a common queue.

The compromise was that the doctors, for an interim period, could book half their time slots from the common queue and half from their own lists.

Clerk Samantha Mallyon testified it was during that time that Pontifex directed her to keep a separate file for Helios patients and book them immediately to be tested. Mallyon said Pontifex came by her desk once a week to make sure the Helios files got fast-tracked.

Mallyon said the Helios patients were treated by either Bridges, Rostom, or CCSC research director Robert Hilsden. Rostom has denied he played favourites with Helios patients. Hilsden has not testified.

Pontifex said the Helios file was set up at the “implied” direction of Bridges and that from 2008 to 2010 Helios patients jumped the queue. Pontifex testified she was OK with that because the database was such a mess that testing slots were going unused. The Helios files were in better order and it was easier to get in touch with those patients to fill empty slots.

Pontifex conceded patients from non-Helios private clinics did not get similar access.

While Bridges did not have any management control at the CCSC, Pontifex said he continued to exert authority in an informal role as an “adviser.”

Dr. Valerie Boswell, who does pre-screening at the CCSC, testified she was rebuffed when she complained in person to Rostom, Pontifex and Hilsden about the queue-jumping. Pontifex said she doesn’t remember that.

Gastroenterologist Dr. Jon Love, who worked at the CCSC, said he raised the same issue at staff meetings. Rostom said he doesn’t remember that or wasn’t present.

The system changed in 2010 after all regional health boards were compressed into one provincial board known as Alberta Health Services. The superboard took over running the CCSC from the university. Doctors were told they could no longer book their own patients.

The inquiry heard that Helios officials began directly emailing their patient referrals to Bridges, who forwarded the referrals to Pontifex. Pontifex said she never saw the emails, because she doesn’t always read her electronic mail. “I’ve been notorious for that,” she told the inquiry.

CCSC clerk Dave Beninger testified that he warned Pontifex in person in 2011 that queue-jumping was still going on. He said she told him it wasn’t. She told the inquiry she doesn’t remember the conversation.

Boswell testified she was again rebuffed late in 2011 when she complained in person to Pontifex, Hilsden and Rostom. She said all Rostom would say was that “this is not a hill we want to die on.”

Things came to a head last February, when Health Minister Fred Horne announced an inquiry. Helios staff said afterward, Bridges told them he could no longer book their patients.

Helios lead physician Dr. Doug Caine and manager Leah Tschritter-Pawluk testified they were emailing patient referrals to Bridges in 2010 out of frustration with the disorganized system. They said they weren’t looking for preferential access; they just wanted to get into the queue.

Helios sent two boxes of wine to the CCSC at Christmas in 2010 and also allowed Pontifex to visit a Helios doctor without having to pay a fee.

Tschritter-Pawluk said Helios sends wine to everyone, including janitors, mailroom staff and security guards.

She added she sees nothing wrong with Pontifex seeing a Helios doctor for free.

“It was a professional courtesy.”

 
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