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Dr. Nicholas Mohtadi, an Orthopaedic Surgeon and Director of the Sport Medicine Centre at the University of Calgary talks to patient Tori Orosz about her knee on Wed., Dec. 7, 2011. The Acute Knee Injury Clinic pilot project (funded by Alberta Health Services and run through the University of Calgary's Kinesiology Department) has come up with an innovative, cost-effective approach to treating acute knee injuries that is improving access and reducing wait times for patients.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Staff of a Calgary private medical clinic that is the focus of allegations of queue jumping told a provincial inquiry on Tuesday that its patients, who each paid up to $10,000 a year for care, were not buying special access to the public health system.

Witnesses have told the inquiry that patients from Helios Wellness Centre routinely got access within weeks to colonoscopies at Calgary's publicly funded Forzani & MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre while the general public waited years for the same tests. One witness testified that a Helios doctor told him during a tour of the private clinic that it was set up as a "reward" for well-heeled donors to the University of Calgary.

Helios and the Forzani & MacPhail centre are in the same building on the university campus at the Foothills Medical Centre.

Helios staff, however, described a chaotic public system in which backlogs meant referrals for screening were not even entered into the database for almost a year, and where physicians acted only as patient advocates – not as would-be queue jumpers.

Helios founder Chen Fong said his physicians were perhaps "more diligent as patient advocates" only to "make sure nothing falls through the cracks."

Dr. Fong, a radiologist by training who used some of his own money and bank loans to set up the clinic in 2006, said he was surprised by allegations that Helios was designed to "reward" university donors.

"This is a new allegation to me. I was totally surprised where this came from," he told the inquiry on Tuesday.

Among the 600 to 700 patients at the Helios clinic, he counted just seven – including himself – who had donated to the university.

Even though individuals pay $10,000 a year, another $5,000 for spouses and $3,000 for young dependents, Dr. Fong described Helios as a non-profit organization, which over the past three years has donated $300,000 annually to fellowships at the university's medical school.

"Helios was formed for the sole purpose to fund fellowships," Dr. Fong said.

Commissioner John Vertes, a retired judge, called it a commendable business model, but pressed him about whether the doctors, who receive a salary, view it as a business designed to make profit.

"From their perspective, it's more than just a job," Dr. Fong said. "This is something they really believe in."

Helios physician Douglas Caine and business operator Leah Tschritter-Pawluk testified on Tuesday that there was so much confusion at the Forzani & MacPhail clinic that they were walking and e-mailing referrals straight to the colon centre's founder because faxes were routinely misplaced.

"We had tried every other mode of communication," Ms. Tschritter-Pawluk said.

The public colon clinic opened in 2008 to take pressure off hospital waiting lists. The inquiry has heard that it inherited a 14,000-patient backlog, and thereafter received 150 referrals a day, and now has about 30,000 people waiting for tests.

Jonathan Love, the gastroenterology chief at Foothills Medical Centre, testified that Dr. Caine told him Helios was set up as "reward."

But on Tuesday, Dr. Caine told the inquiry he had no "recollection" of making such a remark or that he knew of any donors who were patients at the clinic.

Dr. Caine, however, did describe a referral system where one of his patients waited 10 months to have a request for a colonoscopy entered into the public system database, and where forms were often lost.

"We were advocating for our patients in a system that was inefficient," he said. "… My thinking was I had a problem and I was trying to find a solution to the problem."

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