University of Calgary doctors discussed queue-jumping, documents show

Internal University of Calgary documents show founders of the private Helios "wellness" clinic discussed gaining preferential access to health care for its members months before the clinic even opened.
Internal documents show several doctors, including Helios founder Dr. Chen Fong, discussed how to expedite triple bypass heart surgery for a patient. (CBC)

Internal University of Calgary documents show founders of the private Helios "wellness" clinic discussed gaining preferential access to health care for its members months before the clinic even opened.

The documents also raise questions about whether the Helios clinic was being used to encourage donations to the university from the clinic’s members.

The internal documents, obtained by CBC News through freedom of information, include handwritten notes from a Sept. 13, 2007 meeting with Helios founder Dr. Chen Fong.

The notes refer to doctors at the clinic billing the government for insured services. But the notes also state: "They will expedite services [through] usual channels."

A report from the Health Services Preferential Access Inquiry released Wednesday found some Helios members had for years jumped the queue for cancer screening at the publicly funded Colon Cancer Screening Centre, both of which are housed by the University of Calgary (U of C). But the report contained no evidence of Fong being involved in the queue-jumping.

The documents show former dean of medicine Dr. Tom Feasby discussed expediting treatment. (Photo: University of Calgary)

The internal documents also show several doctors associated with the U of C, including Fong and former dean of medicine Dr. Tom Feasby, discussed how to expedite triple bypass heart surgery for a patient.

In fact, it was Feasby who sought the help of Fong in expediting the patient’s surgery. In a Feb. 4, 2010 email, Feasby tells Fong that Dr. Sam Weiss of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute in Calgary told him that a patient, whose name is blanked out in the documents, is "awaiting transfer for a triple bypass."

 "I don’t know any of the details," Feasby wrote to Fong, "but wondered if we could help expedite things. Do you know anything more? I can speak to Brent Mitchell to see if he might help, but I will wait to hear back from you." Mitchell is a doctor at the Libin Cardiovascular Institute at the university.

Doctors tried to expedite heart patient surgery

In a subsequent email, Feasby tells Fong that he has spoken to Mitchell, with whom he has arranged to meet, and he thanks Fong for calling Mitchell on his behalf.

"You are most welcome," Fong writes back and offers to go with Feasby to meet with Mitchell.

None of this information about attempts at expediting access for Helios members or the triple bypass patient was revealed at the inquiry.

It is not known if the patient received expedited surgery. A U of C medicine faculty spokesperson said none of the doctors were available for an interview.

New Democrat health critic David Eggen said that even if the woman didn’t receive expedited surgery, "this is the kind of thing that makes people disgusted in our public institutions."

"I mean, that is the essence of private health care in that you are buying, or through favours, getting preferential access to health services," he said, adding later that the documents "demonstrate that Helios, and others, knew that there is a way by which you can circumvent the public health care system. There is a way that you can get preferential access."

The documents reveal the apparent influence wielded by Fong within the University of Calgary, and also, what an expert in health policy called Fong’s inappropriately close relationship with both the university and the former dean of medicine.

Clinic’s purpose questioned

They also raise questions about whether the Helios clinic was used to encourage donations to the university. Fong is a wealthy Calgary radiologist and professor whose private companies donate more than $200,000 a year to the U of C. The documents show he also made a donation of $1 million to the university to finance scholarships in radiology for graduate students.

NDP health critic David Eggen says preferential treatment risks making people disgusted with public institutions. (CBC)

But the documents also show Fong paid for a retreat for senior university executives. In a handwritten Oct. 31, 2012 note, university president Elizabeth Cannon thanks Fong for donating a stay at Azuridge, a luxury boutique hotel and conference centre in Priddis, southwest of Calgary.

"Your support to our team and the U of C is unparalleled and highly appreciated," Cannon wrote.

On Aug. 16, 2011, Feasby emailed Fong to ask for help with his "business"resume.

"I (would) appreciate any help on that front," Feasby wrote.

University of Alberta political scientist John Church, an expert in health-care policy, said the relationship between Fong, who was both a wealthy donor to the university and a specialist there, and Feasby, as dean of medicine, was inappropriately close.

"There is a clear need to maintain some distance between the two individuals that are involved in that particular arrangement," Church said.

University of Alberta political scientist John Church says the relationship between Feasby and Fong was inappropriately close. (CBC)

At the inquiry, two Calgary doctors testified they had been told Helios had been set up to reward donors to the university. Fong denied that allegation at the inquiry.

Asked if Helios patients were donors to the university, Fong responded that this "is a new allegation to me. I was totally surprised as to where this one come from, okay? After, you know, this thing in the media, I started thinking who do I know in our membership (who) may be donors?"

Testimony contradicted

Fong testified only seven, including himself, out of about 700 Helios members were donors to the U of C.

But his testimony appears to be contradicted by a Dec. 11, 2012 email to a consultant he was attempting to recruit to Helios. "First of all, I need to bring you up to date on what Helios is about," Fong wrote.

"The most important part, other than taking care of the members’ healthcare needs, is to build the bridge between the business community and the Faculty of Medicine. Many of our (Helios) members are, and some became, major donors to the university and the (faculty)."

The inquiry heard testimony that preferential access for Helios members at the colon-cancer screening centre was arranged through Dr. Ron Bridges, one of the centre’s founders, who was also senior associate dean of medicine and a close friend of Fong’s for years.

Both Bridges and Fong endured vigorous questioning at the inquiry about their alleged involvement in helping private Helios members jump the queue for publicly funded cancer screening.

In the documents is a Feb. 19, 2013 email to both Fong and Bridges from Dr. John Meddings, the university’s current dean of medicine.

"Just wanted you to know my thoughts are with you both," Meddings wrote. "Hang in there!"

charles.rusnell@cbc.ca | jennie.russell@cbc.ca