The head of a public colon-cancer centre in Calgary, which was swamped with referrals on top of an already massive waiting list, told an inquiry that clerks were "absolutely not" directed to allow patients from a private clinic to jump the queue.
The testimony came Wednesday on the heels of witnesses who said patients from the private Helios Health and Wellness clinic in Calgary were given "urgent" priority for colonoscopies at the public Forzani & MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre, even if they weren't deemed at high risk.
Alaa Rostom, medical director at the centre, said that when he heard "rumours" of queue jumping, he sent an e-mail to remind staff that preferential access wasn't allowed.
While he didn't do anything further to investigate the matter, he said the 40 to 45 physicians rotating through the public clinic were at one point allowed to allot half of each session's slots to patients from their own practices, and the rest from a public waiting list. He said he didn't "doubt or question" their judgment, but later disbanded that policy to try to steamline the process. "We tried to do it as fairly as possible," he said.
The controversial $10-million inquiry into preferential treatment – critics say it is too narrow in scope – has turned up few cases of actual queue jumping by VIPs, but it has given Albertans a glimpse into a health care system under tremendous strain.
When the Forzani & MacPhail clinic opened in 2008 to take pressure off hospital waiting lists, Dr. Rostom said it inherited a 14,000-patient backlog and thereafter, received 150 referrals a day – a number he considered "excessive." Now, it has about 30,000 people waiting – some of whom have been in the queue for two to three years. Meanwhile, the inquiry heard that some patients from the private Helios clinic were seen within weeks or months.
Separately, Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne said he was "really offended" by the revelations.
Dr. Rostom said colon cancer is among the most common cancers to detect and, if caught early, can be treated. People aged 50 to 74 are routinely screened, which has contributed to the long waiting times.
"There will never be enough colonoscopy space in Alberta to meet our population," he said. "It's just a reality of the situation."