Alberta's auditor general has partially acceded to a request from Liberal health critic David Swann for an audit of two Alberta Health grants to Pure North S'Energy, a private health foundation that offers unproven alternative health treatments.
In a recent letter to Swann, Auditor General Merwan Saher said his office examines Alberta Health's grant processes as a matter of course, but will conduct a more in-depth review of the Pure North grants.
"The [Pure North] grant payments in question will be selected for testing," Saher said.
But a spokesperson for Saher said no decision has yet been made on whether his office will conduct a separate performance audit to determine if the funding itself was merited and provided value for the public money spent.
"We will compare new audits identified with those still in the planning stages and reprioritize our work as appropriate," Saher told Swann. "Your request has been added to our inventory of items for future audit consideration."
In an interview with CBC News, Swann said he understands the auditor general has significant demands on his time and resources, but he said "it is clear that he sees this as a priority. He is at least going to look into the application and approval process in Alberta Health and I think that is appropriate."
Pure North was founded, and is funded, by wealthy Calgary philanthropist and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) co-founder Allan Markin. The non-profit foundation focuses on vulnerable populations such as the homeless, addicted and elderly, and operates free clinics in such places as homeless shelters and on Indigenous reserves.
CBC News reported in April that Alberta Health gave Pure North a $10-million grant in December 2013 to expand its alternative health program, which featured high doses of vitamin D and the removal of mercury dental fillings, ultimately to 7,300 mostly low-income seniors.
Funding approved against ministry advice
Internal government documents show former Progressive Conservative health minister Fred Horne approved the funding against the advice of ministry officials. The officials determined the Pure North program was not adequately supported by science, could not prove the health and economic outcomes it claimed, and may cause adverse reactions in participants.
The documents also showed that six days before the ministry signed the grant agreement, the rationale for the funding was inexplicably changed from a research project to simply an expansion of the program. The change meant there was no ethical oversight of the program. The ministry has not explained the abrupt change in purpose for the funding.
In 2015, newly elected NDP Health Minister Sarah Hoffman declined to continue funding the Pure North program based on advice from ministry officials. But Hoffman did approve $4.2 million in funding to Pure North for a nurse-practitioner led primary care clinic, which is part of a ministry pilot project.
Hoffman has publicly stated that she had no knowledge of any health safety concerns about Pure North before she approved the nurse-practitioner grant. But a briefing note obtained by the Opposition Wildrose through freedom of information shows Hoffman's office was briefed about various issues a month before the grant agreement was signed.
Hoffman has refused to answer questions both from CBC News and opposition politicians about what she knew about Pure North, and when she knew it.
She has also refused to respond to questions from CBC News in relation to its reporting about lobbying conducted for Pure North by health deputy minister Carl Amrhein while he was AHS official administrator. The Wildrose have asked Alberta's ethics commissioner to investigate but that office neither confirms nor denies investigations.
In Swann's May 5 letter to the auditor general requesting the audit, he said "my office has conducted a preliminary review into the matter and, after having spoken to several stakeholders, I believe that there is sufficient grounds for concern, especially as it relates to the potential public health risks the vitamin supplement program may cause to a vulnerable population."
Pure North says no health safety issues
Swann said in an interview that Alberta Health should conduct a thorough review of the program to determine if there were any adverse effects. Pure North spokesman Stephen Carter has publicly stated that the foundation has many studies that prove the effectiveness of its program and said 50,000 people have participated in the program without any safety issues.
Carter welcomed the auditor general's review.
"It's fantastic," he said. "The contracts were awarded through a normal process and I am quite confident that he is going to find that there were no problems with it."
Friends of Medicare executive director Sandra Azocar also previously said Hoffman has a responsibility to independently investigate the potential effects of the Pure North program on vulnerable Albertans.
Hoffman however has simply refused to address the issue and instead told opposition parties they should direct their questions to Conservative MLA Dave Rodney, who was associate health minister under Fred Horne when Pure North received $10 million in funding for its unproven seniors program.
Hoffman, through a spokesperson, has said "we will be fully supportive if the auditor chooses to look into this file."
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