Alberta Health cancels funding for Pure North nurse-practitioner clinic

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman has abruptly cancelled funding for a nurse-practitioner led clinic operated by Pure North, a controversial private health foundation, after a CBC News investigation revealed the clinic offered an unproven alternative treatment to a patient.

CBC News investigation revealed clinic was offering alternative treatment

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said Tuesday that the government is cutting funding to Precision Health, the clinic operated by Calgary-based private health foundation Pure North S'Energy.

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman has abruptly cancelled funding for a nurse-practitioner led clinic operated by Pure North, a controversial private health foundation, after a CBC News investigation revealed the clinic offered an unproven alternative treatment to a patient.

In March, Hoffman told CBC News that provincial funding for Pure North's Precision Health clinic would be "at risk" if it offered any of the foundation's controversial alternative treatments, such as high-dose vitamin supplements.

Hoffman cancelled the clinic's funding Tuesday after CBC News publicly revealed a 74-year-old patient had twice been prescribed vitamin D in single doses of 50,000 IU at the foundation's clinic in downtown Calgary earlier this year.

"The goal of this program is to demonstrate an enhanced role for nurse practitioners in our healthcare system, particularly in delivering team-based care to vulnerable Albertans," Hoffman said in a statement emailed to CBC News late Tuesday afternoon.

"I am concerned that the possibility of overlap between this program and other Pure North initiatives is becoming a distraction to this important work with nurse practitioners.

"Alberta Health is ending grant funding for Pure North," Hoffman said. "Our top priority will be to ensure that all current patients continue to be able to access the care they need."

Pure North was set to receive up to a $1.65-million instalment of the total $4.2-million grant around June 30. But a ministry spokesperson earlier this week said the money had not been paid out. According to the funding agreement, the foundation had already received roughly $925,000.

Pure North: Minister's decision 'politically motivated'

Pure North spokesperson Stephen Carter called Hoffman's decision "politically motivated."

"It is an immature decision and it is not taking Albertans' health into consideration," he said.

Carter said the clinic had just received two favourable independent reviews so Hoffman's decision caught them off guard.

"We do think this decision shows a lack of commitment to actually bending the healthcare cost curve. Instead this government is committed to a higher-cost, less-effective treatment structure for patients," he said, adding that the NDP government feared bad publicity more than it valued making good decisions on behalf of Albertans.

Wildrose accountability critic Nathan Cooper called Hoffman's cancellation of the funding "a good step in the right direction." But he said the reason she gave for her decision was problematic.

"I think that the minister needs to hold people to account for the resources that are being spent, and (ensure) that those programs are doing the right thing," Cooper said, adding that the Pure North grant should not have been cancelled simply because it was "politically challenging or a 'distraction.'"

He said Hoffman and the ministry now need to follow up with Precision Health patients if there are any concerns about the care they received under the grant agreement. The ministry is now requesting anyone with concerns to contact it.

In a June interview, Carter initially denied - three times - that the Precision Health clinic offers any supplements.

But when told CBC News had proof a patient had been prescribed vitamin D by a Precision Health nurse practitioner, Carter said providing supplements like high-dose vitamin D is within their scope of practice. He also said Pure North doesn't provide any instructions to Precision Health nurse practitioners about the services they choose to provide to their patients.

"The practitioner did nothing wrong; we stand by that," Carter said Tuesday, adding that the decisions made by the nurse practitioner were in the "best interests of the patient."

The nurse practitioner previously told CBC News it was in her scope of practice to offer vitamin D as a treatment at the publicly funded clinic.

Pure North has repeatedly said vitamin D at high doses is safe and is not an alternative treatment.

Auditor general to conduct review

While Precision Health's funding has been cancelled, the ministry's grant agreement with Pure North is still to be scrutinized by Alberta Auditor General Merwan Saher.

Following a request in May from Liberal MLA Dr. David Swann, Saher's office said it would include the $4.2 million grant in a review of how Alberta Health approves, pays, and records grants. In June, a spokesperson for the auditor general said no decision had yet been made on whether there will be a separate performance audit to determine if the funding itself was merited and provided value for the public money spent.

Alberta's ethics commissioner, Marguerite Trussler, has also been asked by the Opposition Wildrose to conduct an investigation into whether Alberta Health Deputy Minister Carl Amrhein fully disclosed his relationship with Pure North.

The Wildrose made the request after CBC News revealed Amrhein, who signed the Precision Health grant agreement on behalf of the ministry, was a participant in the Pure North wellness program and had lobbied for the foundation while he was official administrator of Alberta Health Services.

Trussler's office has said the commissioner is prevented by law from disclosing the existence of an investigation.

The ethics commissioner previously told CBC News that Amrhein disclosed his participation in the Pure North wellness program to her. Trussler also said Amrhein told her he merely signed the agreement in his capacity as deputy minister, after Hoffman had signed off.

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About the Author

Charles Rusnell

Investigative reporter

Charles Rusnell is a reporter with CBC Investigates, the award-winning investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. His journalism in the public interest is widely credited with forcing accountability, transparency and democratic change in Alberta. Send tips in confidence to cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca. and follow him on Twitter@charlesrusnell