A Toronto doctor connected to the anti-poverty movement could lose his medical licence after he allegedly signed paperwork that allowed welfare recipients to collect extra money for ailments such as diabetes, food allergies and gout without confirming they had those conditions.
The city's welfare office is apparently rejecting "special dietary allowance" requests from Roland Wong, a Chinatown doctor the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario is investigating for allegedly signing an unknown number of the forms dating back to 2004, when he heeded a call from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty to vouch for everyone who requested the allowance.
"The first question always asked is, are these people scamming the system?" Dr. Wong is quoted as saying on OCAP's website.
"I would say 'no.' When [former premier Mike]Harris came in, they reduced all benefits by 25 per cent ... rather than dismissing them as scammers, help them if you can."
The special dietary allowance program now costs the province 12 times what it did nine years ago.
This is largely because of a "campaign by advocacy groups critical of Ontario works allowance amounts," the province's Auditor-General concluded in a report released this week.
The province spent $67-million on special dietary allowances in the 2008-09 fiscal year, up from $5-million in 2002-03.
The program is designed to provide as much as $250 extra a month for ailing welfare recipients to buy healthy food: $42 a month for diabetes, $75 or more for HIV/AIDS, $35 for a milk allergy and $20 for extreme obesity, for example.
As part of its investigation, the Auditor-General's office surveyed 1,000 allowance recipients and found 20 per cent had forms filled out by one unidentified doctor.
Celiac disease was identified in 99 per cent of the applicants, "which we feel is unreasonably high given that the nationwide incidence of this disease is estimated at 1 per cent of the population."
In an interview at his Spadina Avenue office, Dr. Wong said he had no idea whether he was the unnamed doctor mentioned in the report, but said he has participated in clinics organized to bring hundreds of people to receive dietary allowance forms, and has filled out forms for people who have been turned away by other doctors.
Dr. Wong insists he is bending the rules, not breaking them. He sees himself as a specialist in community medicine, with a responsibility to marginalized people.
"Poverty is pervasive, and we know that poverty is the major determinant of health. Given that, can we just let it go on?" he said, adding, "you realize this whole thing is brought against me by politicians - not patients."
Indeed, it was Councillor Rob Ford who submitted a complaint to the CPSO, the body that governs the province's doctors, several months ago, after receiving complaints from people in his Etobicoke ward.
"It's fraud, isn't it? I think that's what you'd define it as - fraud against the government," Mr. Ford said yesterday.
Dr. Wong has until Dec. 17 to submit a letter to the CPSO in his defence; after that, the college can give him an interim suspension. If the allegations are found to be true, he could lose his medical licence.
Dr. Wong's diagnoses have been questioned in the past: In a 2008 ruling, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal rejected two of his earlier diagnoses for inadequate evidence; in the June, 2009, court case of accused Al-Qaeda associate Mahmoud Es-Sayyid Jaballah, Dr. Wong's evidence is described as "lacking, speculative," and "highly equivocal."
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty organizer John Clarke said his group has been getting calls since early October from hundreds of welfare recipients whose special diet allowance applications have been denied - all of them signed by Dr. Wong.
No one at the city was available to confirm that late yesterday, but Mr. Clarke provided a copy of an e-mail from a manager with the city's social services department saying the office is no longer accepting forms from Dr. Wong because he has posted a notice saying he would no longer sign them at his Spadina clinic.
Dr. Wong participated in a clinic in Etobicoke last Friday, he said, where he filled out forms for about 100 people, many of them Somali-Canadians.
Yesterday, dozens of people, most of them Somali-Canadian women from Etobicoke, staged a sit-in at the social services offices in Metro Hall downtown, demanding their special diet allowances.
With a report from Stephanie Chambers