Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann has asked the auditor general to conduct an audit of Alberta Health's $10-million grant to Pure North S'Energy, a private health foundation that offers unproven alternative health treatments.
In a news release issued Thursday, Swann, a former medical officer of health, said he requested the audit because the public "needs to be assured that millions of dollars of taxpayer money were given for the right reasons and for a program that has a demonstrated track record of improving health."
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CBC News reported last month that Alberta Health gave Pure North a $10-million grant to expand its program, which featured high doses of vitamin D and the removal of mercury dental fillings, ultimately to 7,300 mostly low-income seniors.
Internal government documents show former Progressive Conservative health minister Fred Horne approved the funding against the advice of ministry officials.
The officials determined the Pure North program was not adequately supported by science, could not prove the health and economic outcomes it claimed, and may cause adverse reactions in participants. The foundation focuses on vulnerable populations such as the homeless, addicted and elderly, and operates free clinics in such places as homeless shelters and on Indigenous reserves.
In his letter to the auditor general, dated May 5, Swann wrote, "my office has conducted a preliminary review into the matter and, after having spoken to several stakeholders, I believe that there is sufficient grounds for concern, especially as it relates to the potential public health risks the vitamin supplement program may cause to a vulnerable population."
CBC News also reported last month that the rationale for the grant was inexplicably changed from a research project to simply an expansion of the program. The change meant there was no ethical oversight of the program.
Health advocate says minister should review program
Pure North collects detailed medical information from its participants, including blood samples, and has built a "mega-database" to which university researchers have been provided access.
The foundation insists it is not conducting research but instead gathers data to gauge the efficacy of its program. Its spokesperson, Stephen Carter, has told CBC News the information provided to researchers is simply a "secondary" use of that data.
Carter also claims Pure North has many studies that prove the effectiveness of its program. He said 50,000 people have participated in the program without any safety issues.
Friends of Medicare executive director Sandra Azocar supported Swann's call for an audit. But she stressed Health Minister Sarah Hoffman has a responsibility to independently investigate the potential effects of the Pure North program on vulnerable Albertans.
"It is a concern that nobody is giving a voice to all the people that could potentially have been impacted," Azocar said, adding that Pure North distributed packets of high-dose supplements to vulnerable Albertans.
"Who is speaking for them?" Azocar said.
Health deputy minister lobbied for Pure North funding
Earlier Thursday, CBC News reported that several former senior civil servants said Alberta Health deputy minister Carl Amrhein had openly lobbied for funding for Pure North while he was official administrator of Alberta Health Services, the operating arm of the ministry. Some of the former civil servants said they told Amrhein he was in a conflict of interest.
CBC News has revealed Amrhein and his wife were both participants in the Pure North program and that Amrhein, while deputy minister, had met privately with Allan Markin, the wealthy Calgary philanthropist who founded and largely funds Pure North.
In October 2016, Amrhein signed, on behalf of the ministry, a $4.2 million grant to Pure North for a nurse-practitioner clinic.
Both Amrhein and Health Minister Sarah Hoffman have refused to answer questions about the alleged lobbying and conflict of interest.
Azocar, of the Friends of Medicare, said the government has a duty to provide answers.
"I think the more that we know and the more that we hear about this story, there becomes more of a need for us to actually get some answers as to how this request for money, and the money that was previously allocated to this company, all came down," she said.
Wildrose accountability critic Nathan Cooper said the auditor general should review both grants awarded to Pure North. Like Azocar, he said the government must investigate safety concerns raised about the Pure North program.
"Patient safety is obviously the number one priority," Cooper said. "And health dollars should be spent based upon the best science available.
"So that is the responsibility of the health minister to ensure that that is happening," he said. "And if that isn't happening, we definitely need to be taking steps to correct that."
Hoffman's press secretary, Timothy Wilson, did not immediately respond to an interview request from CBC News on Thursday.
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