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Queue-jumping inquiry update: Who pays $10,000 a year for yoga and diet advice?

Can we agree on one thing? Nobody pays $10,000 to $15,000 a year just for massages, yoga and diet advice.

Alberta's medical queue-jumping inquiry continued this week with testimony from the principals of a high-end Calgary medical clinic -- unfortunate turn of phrase, that, under the circumstances -- whose customers got to skip the line for diagnostic colon cancer screening at a public colonoscopy clinic in the same building.

Testimony before the holiday break has already established that clients of the Helios Wellness Clinic got bumped well up the line. This week the inquiry was trying to get to the bottom of why, and how, that happened.

But the principals at the Helios Clinic, the "boutique wellness centre" that charges $10,000 a year for a membership, $15,000 for a couple, were all apparently astonished at the suggestion something wasn't quite cricket when their well-heeled patients somehow got jumped to the front of the line at the publicly run Forzani and MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre.

Non-urgent Helios patients apparently had to wait a week or two, and could pick their own days for a screening. All others in the same circumstances had to wait, oh, two or three years.

According to newspaper accounts yesterday, Helios founder Dr. Chen Fong told the inquiry he was surprised to learn of the pre-holiday testimony by lowly clerks at the public clinic, who told retired Justice John Z. Vertes that patients from Helios automatically went right to the front of the lineup. Helios patients' forms even had a special colour code, and their own exclusive in-basket, to ensure their timely movement up the list.

But there's absolutely nothing to the claim there’s a special relationship between the two clinics, Fong told the inquiry -- formally known as the Health Services Preferential Access Inquiry.

The Helios Clinic's lead physician, Dr. Douglas Caine, told the inquiry he had no idea about the longer waits for non-Helios patients, the Calgary Herald reported in its coverage of this week's inquiry sessions in Calgary.

Moreover, judging from to the Herald's coverage, Helios Operations Manager Leah Tschritter-Pawluk thought the disorganized state of the public clinic's paperwork was a possible explanation. It was so bad, she testified, Helios staff sent referrals to a doctor at the public clinic by email just to get around the mess. Apparently, they were later asked not to do that any more by the public clinic.

So for now, based on the testimony, how Helios patients came to be served so quickly by the public Forzani and MacPhail clinic remains a mystery.

Tschritter-Pawluk testified that for the private clinic's steep fees -- $10,000 per year for an individual, $15,000 for a couple -- its members received a package of services that included access to family doctors (who billed the public system for insured medical services), kinesiologists, massage therapists, an acupuncturist, yoga classes and diet advice.

It is not known yet, of course, what the inquiry will make of all this. 

It is important to remember though that, although it was set up in response to Alberta Premier Alison Redford's promise there would be a judicial inquiry into intimidation of medical professionals in the health care system, it is not a judicial inquiry. Rather, it reports to Alberta's minister of health. 

Moreover, the topic under examination is restricted to medical line jumping in the public health care system. Indeed, the fact there was any line jumping revealed by witnesses for the retired judge to inquire into comes as something of a surprise.

But now that it has come to light, surely Vertes must be thinking the same thing as everyone else.

That is to say, that clients, patients, members, customers or whatever they ought to be called weren't paying the kind of money they were parting with just for privilege of accessing "enhanced" services like yoga, diet advice and massages.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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