Queue-jumping inquiry to focus on Calgary clinic this week
Two prominent University of Calgary doctors at the centre of an alleged queue-jumping scheme to reward deep-pocketed university donors are to tell their sides of the story this week.
Dr. Ron Bridges, founder of the Forzani and MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre, and Dr. Chen Fong, creator of the private Helios Wellness Centre, are to testify when the Health Services Preferential Access Inquiry resumes in Calgary.
Fong is to take the stand Tuesday and Bridges on Wednesday. Other doctors and staff from both facilities are also scheduled to testify as the inquiry enters its final phase of hearings.
It is exploring allegations made under oath last month by doctors and employees at the publicly funded screening centre and the Foothills Hospital.
The screening centre is on the sixth floor of a building at the Foothills Medical Centre, while the Helios clinic is two floors below it.
The Forzani and MacPhail centre opened in 2008 as Canada's first stand-alone colon cancer screening clinic. It handles up to 20,000 patients a year, relieving pressure on area hospitals.
Witnesses have testified that they believe Bridges was behind a plan that for years moved patients from Helios to the front of the line for tests at the screening centre.
This reportedly allowed the favoured few to be seen and treated within weeks or months, while the wait for a first visit for non-urgent cases was three years or more.
The inquiry has heard the queue-jumping began in 2010 or earlier and ended sometime after Health Minister Fred Horne announced the inquiry last February.
Dr. Jonathan Love, site chief for gastroenterology at Foothills, has testified that after he was assigned to treat a fast-tracked patient in November 2010, he paid a visit to the Helios clinic.
There, he said, Helios doctor Douglas Caine "volunteered that on some basis it (the clinic) was a reward for the philanthropic community of the University of Calgary."
Caine is to testify on Tuesday, as is Leah Tschritter-Pawluck, the officer co-ordinator at Helios.
Helios officials did not return phone calls Friday, something they haven't done since the allegations arose a month ago.
A Helios brochure put online by the brochure's designer indicates the clinic offers a wide range of preventative treatments to select clientele for $10,000 a year, or $15,000 a year for a couple.
Darlene Pontifex, head administrator at the colon cancer screening centre, is to testify with Bridges on Wednesday.
Clerk Samantha Mallyon, who quit the clinic in November 2011, testified last month that Helios patient files were singled out and given to her to be moved to the front of the screening queue. Mallyon said Pontifex made sure it was done.
"She did come to the desk frequently, at least once a week, to make sure that these (Helios) files were being booked," Mallyon told the hearing.
Dr. Alaa Rostom, medical director at the screening centre, has testified that he was not aware of any queue-jumping and, if there was one, Pontifex would not have been involved.
Rostom testified that if routine patients were being fast-tracked the fault was with booking clerks.
Bridges and Fong are nationally recognized leaders in their fields.
Bridges is the senior associate dean in charge of faculty affairs for the University of Calgary's faculty of medicine.
He was a key fundraiser for the screening centre, which was originally run jointly by the province and the University of Calgary, but is now operated solely by the province through Alberta Health Services.
Bridges was the head of gastroenterology in Calgary from 2003 to 2007 and served as president of the Canadian Association of Gastroenterology from 2008 to 2010.
Fong is a professor at the University of Calgary's department of radiology. He headed that department from 1999 to 2006 and at one time was in charge of diagnostic imaging for the entire Calgary region.
Fong was also one of the key organizers of a joint campaign run by the former Calgary health region and the university's faculty of medicine to raise funds to pay for numerous health programs and projects,.
In February 2009, the university announced that the Reach! campaign had collected $312 million over four years from more than 700 donors, with the money going to, among other projects, the Forzani and MacPhail centre.
The inquiry has not heard evidence or statements from witnesses linking Reach! to the queue-jumping allegations.
Bridges has not returned calls for comment.
On Friday, university spokeswoman Leanne Yohemas said the school will wait until the inquiry is over before commenting.