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Doctor suspended six months, fined $35K for helping poor patients

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Her body was overrun with cancer. She didn’t have a doctor, but needed the Special Diet Allowance. So she went to Dr. Wong.

“To literally save my life,” said Freed B.

“I was sick and I was on death’s door. Dr. Wong signed that form for me so that I could live and be here today. And I’m eternally grateful for him doing that for me.”

For doing his job. For helping a poor patient. For making sure she was healthy. For saving her life.

“And that’s all he did,” said Freeda. “He took an oath to save people’s lives. And it’s not really a special diet. It’s just money to have health food.”

The Special Diet Allowance “helps eligible social assistance recipients with the extra costs of a special diet for a medical condition listed on the Special Diets Schedule,” said the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services on its website.

“I was buying herbs and organic food,” said Freeda. 

“I wasn’t buying drugs, booze, cigarettes or anything like that. I didn’t go out to the movies or the clubs. I stayed home and focused on curing myself of cancer.”

Ten years later, Freeda said she’s living cancer-free. But struggling to find work after a great deal of time out of the workforce. 

“I still get the Special Diet now but it’s $130 (a month) or something like that,” she said. “And my doctor (her current doctor, not Dr. Wong) really had to finagle the form to get me that much money.”

Similar moves by Dr. Roland Wong over a four-year period earned him a six month suspension, a $35,000 fine and pricey legal fees when the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario found him guilty of professional misconduct.

Even the police investigated the case, but found no grounds to lay fraud charges.

“The temptation to exaggerate in order to maximize financial benefit for a patient is entirely understandable,” the (College) committee wrote in a story published by the Toronto Star on July 30, 2013. 

“Advocacy for a patient, however, should not trump one’s professional integrity.”

But other physicians, like Dr. Philip Berger, the Chief of Family & Community Medicine at St. Michael’s hospital in Toronto, disagree with the College’s decision.

“Dr. Wong did not harm anybody,” said Dr. Berger. 

“He didn’t give them wrong medications or a wrong diagnosis. He was just trying to give them a little more money so people could have enough food. And the vindictive punishment that the College meted out is auras of magnitude greater than it would do for any other doctor.”

Dr. Berger said Wong’s punishment sent a “chill” throughout the medical community, striking terror into other doctors who want to help their poor patients.

“The College is also sending a message to all poor people and people on welfare in Ontario,” said Dr. Berger.

“Do not bother coming to us if you’re poor or on welfare. We’re not going to help you. We’re just going to punish your doctors who are trying to help you.”

Creating a huge injustice against society’s most vulnerable.

“But there was a clear purpose to what they were doing,” said John Clarke, an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).

OCAP coordinated the solidarity rally for Dr. Roland Wong outside the College in the midst of a severe snowstorm that dumped close to 20 centimetres of snow in Toronto on Wednesday, the same day Dr. Wong began serving his suspension.

“When the government attacked the Special Diet and Roland Wong, they did it because he was in the way of an agenda of driving down social assistance rates.”

Forcing more OW and ODSP recipients to choose between feeding their families or paying the rent.

Clarke recalled a day when a woman who had just received the Special Diet called the OCAP office.

“She was describing how her children were eating fresh fruit,” said Clarke. “And she was weeping as she was telling us that her children were eating fresh fruit. That was the reality of what was being done for people.”

But Dr. Wong’s efforts at reducing poverty in the province didn’t fit neatly inside the Ontario Ministry’s guidelines.

“And they were determined to shut that down,” said Clarke. “And that’s why they targeted him.”

So on a bitterly cold, snowy day, supporters and patients came out to show their respect and gratitude for the man who was willing to risk his career for them.

“I became a doctor to some good for people,” said Dr. Wong. “ (But) we are coming to a point where a person who wants to help is put down.”

Who won’t see some of his patients when he returns from his suspension.

“Because some of you may have passed on,” said Dr. Wong. “This is a penalty against my patients.”

The innocent third parties to whom Dr. Wong tried to bring a slice of comfort.

Dr. Wong is now prohibited from completing and signing Special Diet Allowance forms.

But following the rally Dr. Wong and one of his female patients, along with their supporters, walked to Queen’s Park to deliver a Special Diet Allowance form signed by him to the Premier.

“To let her (the Premier) know that such nonsense, such cruelty should not exist,” said Dr. Wong.

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