While ordinary Albertans waited three years for a colon cancer test, patients at a private clinic were treated in just weeks under an informal agreement with Calgary's flagship colon care screening clinic, an inquiry was told Tuesday.
Three staffers from the Forzani and MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre testified that when it came to non-urgent tests, they were directed to slot Helios Wellness Centre patients in as soon as possible, bumping other non-urgent patients down the list.
"It was a common practice with Helios to make sure they were a priority," testified Samantha Mallyon, a clerk who quit the publicly funded Forzani Centre in 2011 due to frustration over management.
The inquiry was told Helios was a prestigious private clinic providing care to "executive patients. "
Ms. Mallyon said the favoured patients were funnelled through three doctors at the Forzani Clinic.
"I assumed that it was an agreement between the clinics. I assumed that it was something to do with AHS (the government management body Alberta Health Services)," she said.
"I never questioned it to management."
But she said the clerks were irked.
"More just griping," she said. "Wondering why these patients were priority versus others."
If borne out, it would be the first example at the inquiry of organized, systemic queue-jumping in the provincial health system. Some doctors have already testified to examining friends and colleagues in an ad hoc fashion after hours as personal favours.
The Forzani Centre opened just over four years ago at the Foothills Medical Centre and is run in conjunction with the University of Calgary and the province.
When constructed, it was billed as the first dedicated stand-alone clinic to test for colon cancer, treating more than 10,000 patients a year.
Forzani clerk David Beninger testified when he joined the facility in 2011, he noticed that patients from Helios, located nearby, were being moved up the queue for routine tests.
Sometimes, the inquiry heard, Helios staff would walk the patients right into the Forzani clinic.
Mr. Beninger said he raised concerns with other doctors and staff, but said no one wanted to hear about it, let alone pursue it.
He said the normal wait for non-urgent colon cancer screenings at that time was about three years.
"Private patients of Helios were being seen at our clinic sooner," said Mr. Beninger.
He said he never found out why.
"It just kind of felt like it was accepted. It was part of the culture," he said.
Forzani clerk Dayna Sutherland said she would get the word from her supervisors, from nurses, or just see sticky notes on Helios patient forms to get those patients in to be seen as soon as possible.
She said the cases fell outside proper procedure, but she did it anyway.
"I did it because I was directed to do it by someone in a superior position," she said.
She related to commission head John Vertes the case of one Helios patient.
The patient was moved up in the line for a test, then failed to show up for a spring consultation, was rebooked, then failed to show up for the test itself in order to take in the Calgary Stampede summer festival.
Normally, the inquiry heard, missing an appointment for a routine test without valid excuse moves a patient to the back of the line – but the Stampede patient was instead quickly re-slotted in and treated.
"Is this normal?" asked Mr. Vertes.
"No," said Ms. Sutherland.
"Is there any explanation for the abnormality?" he asked.
"Not to my knowledge," she said.
Mr. Beninger testified that at some point in 2011 an audit was done on the Forzani clinic, and that as far as he knows Helios patients no longer get special treatment.
Other doctors at the clinic are to testify in the coming days.