Alberta to review clinic for queue-jumping

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EDMONTON – Alberta Health Services says it will review the practices of a Calgary cancer clinic accused of allowing patients to jump the queue for tests.

“For Alberta Health Services, access for any type of health care must be based on clinical circumstances,” Chris Mazurkewich, chief operating officer of AHS, said in an interview Tuesday announcing the review.

“It’s a core value.”

Mazurkewich said the investigation begins May 1 and is expected to be completed by the summer.

The review will be jointly conducted by two health care leaders and a physician from Edmonton.

Mazurkewich said they also want to determine why an internal investigation into reports of queue-jumping at Calgary’s Colon Cancer Screening Centre in early 2012 did not find any evidence, only to have evidence surface a year later at Alberta’s preferential access inquiry.

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Last week, in closing submissions to the head of that inquiry, John Vertes, commission lead counsel Michele Hollins singled out AHS executives for doing little when warned in early 2012 that some patients were getting preferential treatment at the colon clinic, also known as CCSC.

Vertes has finished hearing testimony and is to submit his report to the Alberta government by Aug. 31.

Mazurkewich said even if AHS finishes their investigation earlier than Vertes, they will wait for the release of his report to see if any of his recommendations need to be added to their findings.

At the Vertes inquiry, CCSC clerks testified that from 2008 to 2012 — at the direction of management — they slotted in low-risk patients belonging to Dr. Ron Bridges and others from the Helios Wellness Centre within weeks or months. The wait for everyone else was three years.

Bridges is an associate dean of medicine at the University of Calgary and the founder of the CCSC. The inquiry heard Bridges is also a key fundraiser for the university.

Helios is a non-profit private clinic that dispenses yoga, exercise, and diet advice and, along with the CCSC, rents office space from the university.

The inquiry was told that Helios patients paid $10,000 a year to join, and that Helios donated $200,000 or more annually to the university to fund medical scholarships and other projects.

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Bridges testified he didn’t follow the normal CCSC booking rules but never knowingly pushed a patient ahead in line.

The inquiry heard testimony from both AHS and CCSC supervisors.

CCSC medical director Dr. Alaa Rostom refuted testimony that he had been warned numerous times about Bridges possibly queue jumping times.

He testified he was first told about it in early 2012, but didn’t act on the information because he didn’t know if it was true and didn’t have the time or resources to find out.

Darlene Pontifex, who runs the business side of the CCSC, denied seeing emails from Bridges that bypassed the normal booking procedures but told the inquiry she doesn’t always read her email.

Barb Kathol, an executive director at the Foothills Hospital responsible for the CCSC, said when she heard talk about what was going on she followed the chain of command and went to Rostom, who told her there was nothing to worry about. She testified she let the matter drop.

The inquiry heard that Rostom’s boss, Dr. Francois Belanger — head of the Calgary health region for Alberta Health Services — learned of what was going on in 2012, and also contacted Rostom. He testified that Rostom told him there was no problem and he didn’t pursue it.

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Clerks have told the inquiry that the queue-jumping hasn’t happened for a year.

AHS is the service delivery arm of Alberta’s Health Department.

Helios officials have denied trying to get their patients seen earlier at the CCSC. Mazurkewich said they won’t investigate Helios because the private clinic falls outside their area of authority.

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