The money was good, and according to the Chinatown doctor who earned it, so were his intentions.
Now, however, Roland Wong, who signed off on thousands of dietary claims for the needy, faces a disciplinary hearing and the possible loss of his medical licence.
It was Toronto city councillor (now mayor) Rob Ford who in 2009 first alerted the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario about Dr. Wong’s generous attitude toward welfare recipients. Then came a similar complaint from the Ministry of Community and Social Services, which dispenses the money.
As a result, the College on Tuesday launched a hearing into the form-filling practices of Dr. Wong, who stands charged with unprofessional conduct and incompetence, accused of accepting his patients’ dietary claims at face value rather than verifying them.
There was a criminal probe, too, by the Ontario Provincial Police, which concluded last year there was no basis for laying fraud charges.
Unrepentant, he freely admits that in one year alone he filled out more than 15,000 forms entitling some of Ontario’s neediest residents to the Special Dietary Supplementary Allowance, which can add up to $250 a month to the (current) welfare rate of $592 for a single person. Families sharing special dietary needs get multiple extra increments.
Dr. Wong says he was largely motivated by the 22 per cent slash in welfare benefits by the Mike Harris government in 1995.
He also concedes that financially he did well during the 3½ years he filled out the forms in his modest basement office on Spadina Avenue.
Each time a doctor ticks the box stating a patient has special dietary needs, encompassing everything from diabetes and obesity to HIV/AIDS to allergies, the provincial OHIP plan pays the physician $20. And a ministry audit found that Dr. Wong earned $1.8-million from the SDSA program, and that the forms he churned out comprised about 13 per cent of the total provincewide.
“So you can see there was lots of money there,” Dr. Wong said, outside the courtroom-like hearing room where a panel of five CPSO adjudicators headed by Windsor physician Paul Ziter was taking evidence. “But that was a red herring.”
So why is he in trouble?
“Over the years the provincial government got irritated with me for helping too many people … so they used the College as a tool to take action against me.”
The hearing room was filled with supporters of Dr. Wong, including members of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, which in 2008 advised on its website that “the Special Diet Supplement is a good way to get some extra money for you and your family.”
Under questioning, the ComSoc bureaucrat who oversaw the ministry’s SDSA policy at the time, Anna Cain, told the inquiry that a package of 130 disparate welfare cases involving Dr. Wong, collated by field workers and managers, showed that almost all involved allergies to eggs, milk, lactose, soy and wheat, which she said was statistically unlikely.
“The ministry expects the doctor to confirm a medical condition – beyond self-reporting,” she told College counsel Lindsay Cader.
But in cross-examination, Dr. Wong’s lawyer, Peter Rosenthal, questioned whether the extra hoops doctor and patient would have to negotiate to do that would be worth it. He asked whether it would be simpler and fairer to just give every welfare recipient the extra $250 each month.
When the hearing wrapped up for the day, Mr. Rosenthal stressed that his client did nothing wrong and in no way initiated the SDSA claims.
“The question is, what level of scrutiny should he have used before ticking a special diet form? In our view what he did was appropriate in the circumstances. There were hundreds and hundreds of people who needed these forms filled out, he took their history, discussed things with them, checked on medicines they may have been taking. If he doesn’t believe somebody, is he supposed to cross-examine them?”
The hearing resumes Dec. 6.