Alberta Health Queue Jumping Happened, Admits Cancer Clinic

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CANCER SCREENINGS
Alberta health queue jumping happened, admits cancer clinic. | Alamy

CALGARY - The head of the publicly funded Colon Cancer Screening Centre conceded Wednesday that patients from one private clinic were allowed to jump the queue.

Darlene Pontifex told an inquiry that from around 2008 to 2010, patient referrals from the Helios Wellness Centre in Calgary were kept in a special file and booked much faster than others.

"They (Helios patients) had their own booking folder and they were booked in faster than the regular waiting list?" asked inquiry lawyer Ryan Penner.

"That's correct," said Pontifex.

She said that during that time period her centre's database was in such disarray that staff couldn't track down enough patients to fill testing slots.

The files from Helios, located two floors down from the screening centre at Calgary's Foothills Medical Centre, were available with names and contact information, so they were used, she said.

"They (the Helios patients) were up to date and easy to contact."

"So they were given this special treatment as a matter of convenience?" asked Penner.

"It was a matter of us being able to fill our endoscopy time," Pontifex replied.

"Did other clinics get this special treatment?" asked Penner.

"Not that I can recall," she replied.

Other doctors and staff at the colon centre have testified they believe Pontifex and Dr. Ron Bridges, a University of Calgary associate dean in the medical faculty, were co-opting the resources of the public centre to serve Helios patients.

Pontifex testified that she is seen by a doctor at the Helios clinic, but is not required to pay the annual $10,000 membership fee.

"It was a professional courtesy."

Testimony to date has painted two different pictures of what was happening at the screening centre from 2008 until the early months of 2012, when the Alberta government announced it would hold an inquiry into allegations of queue-jumping.

Clerks and doctors have testified that soon after the public screening centre opened in 2008, Helios patients were receiving colon cancer tests within weeks. The wait list for everyone else was three years.

Clerk Samantha Mallyon said all Helios files came to her and Pontifex came by her desk once a week to make sure they were fast-tracked.

Patient referrals and inquiry testimony indicate Helios patients were even allowed to pick a date that worked best for them for screening.

The inquiry has heard how one patient continually missed appointments, once because he was at the Calgary Stampede, but was immediately rebooked every time.

Gastroenterologist Dr. Jon Love has testified that Dr. Doug Caine of the Helios clinic told him the facility was set up to reward people who donated to the University of Calgary. Caine has denied saying this.

Dr. Chen Fong, a University of Calgary radiology professor and Helios founder, has testified that the clinic is a non-profit organization set up in 2007 to fund scholarships for University of Calgary medical students.

For $10,000 a year, Helios patients get a range of services, including yoga, diet tips and exercise advice, Fong said. Any profits go to the university.

The inquiry has been told that from 2008 to early 2010, doctors who worked at the public screening centre, including Bridges, were allowed to bring in patients from their own practices for screening while the CCSC worked to create one common patient queue for everyone.

Clerks said prior to 2010 the Helios patients were fast-tracked via the speical folder.

After 2010, said the clerks, the special file was shut down, but Bridges continued to book Helios patients based on referrals sent to him directly by email from Helios.

Caine and Leah Tschritter-Pawluk — the day-to-day leaders at Helios — testified Tuesday that in 2010 they did begin directly emailing Bridges to get their patients seen at the public screening centre because they still considered the centre's database a mess and that patient files were getting lost.

Caine said at no time did they expect Helios patients to be pushed to the head of the line.

On Wednesday, Penner showed Pontifex two emails from Bridges to Pontifex and her assistant that said Helios patients were to be booked directly.

Pontifex testified she doesn't remember those emails.

"I receive a lot of emails. I don't necessarily read them."

Even from Bridges — founder of the screening centre, a leading gastroenterologist and a man she had known for 15 years? asked Penner.

"As I said, I don't always read my emails," Pontifex replied. "I've been notorious for that. People know that about me."

Penner asked Pontifex if she agree the emails were an improper deviation from the booking procedure.

"Yes I do," she replied.

She also testified that Bridges was the one who "implied" that the separate file of fast-tracked Helios patients be set up prior to 2010.

Bridges did not have any formal title at the screening centre, but he had informal authority, Pontifex said.

"He did have a management role with us. He was our adviser."

Dr. Valerie Boswell, a general practitioner at the screening centre, has testified she warned Pontifex in person twice that she had concerns about Bridges fast-tracking patients. A clerk said he personally warned Pontifex of the same thing in 2011.

Both said Pontifex either ignored them or brushed off their concerns.

Pontifex testified she doesn't recall those conversations.

Bridges began his testimony Wednesday. He told the inquiry he knows Fong well and worked with him five years ago on the University of Calgary's Reach! campaign, which raised $312 million from 700 donors for projects that included the CCSC.

He is slated to return to the witness stand Monday to answer questions relating to the allegations of queue-jumping.

— By Dean Bennett in Edmonton

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