Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman's credibility questioned on Pure North issue
Internal briefing note raises doubts about Hoffman’s statements in legislature
By Jennie Russell, Charles Rusnell, CBC News Posted: May 16, 2017 5:00 AM MT Last Updated: May 16, 2017 5:00 AM MT
Health Minister Sarah Hoffman has said she knew nothing about health safety issues related to the private health foundation her ministry recently funded. (CBC News)
Health Minister Sarah Hoffman either misled the legislature or her senior staff withheld critical information from her about health safety issues related to a program offered by a private alternative health foundation to which she approved millions of dollars in funding, an internal briefing note shows.
In a March interview with CBC News, Hoffman said she knew nothing about serious health safety issues identified in government documents related to the Calgary-based Pure North S'Energy Foundation before she approved a $4.2-million grant to the foundation in October 2016 for a primary-care clinic.
On April 10, in response to questions from Wildrose MLA Tany Yao, Hoffman told the legislature she still had no specific knowledge of health risks associated with the foundation's alternative health program.
But an Alberta Health Services (AHS) briefing note shows that on Sept. 28, 2016 — a month before her ministry signed the $4.2-million grant agreement — Hoffman's office was told health officials had previously identified the "potential for negative health effects" resulting from the foundation's distribution of high-dose supplements to vulnerable populations.
"Either she has misrepresented the facts inside the house, or her staff haven't provided her with the appropriate information, both of which should be very concerning," Wildrose accountability critic Nathan Cooper said in an interview.
The Wildrose obtained the briefing note through a freedom of information request and provided it to CBC News.
Hoffman's press secretary Tim Wilson did not acknowledge an interview request from CBC News last week. Hoffman has also repeatedly refused to answer questions about lobbying and allegations of conflict of interest involving her deputy minister, Carl Amrhein, who was a participant in the Pure North program.
Pure North is a privately run, non-profit foundation that offers an unproven alternative health program involving high doses of supplements, including vitamin D. The foundation focuses its work on vulnerable populations and operates free programs at homeless shelters and drug recovery centres.
'Potential for negative health effects'
The September 2016 briefing note was prepared for Hoffman and AHS chief executive officer Dr. Verna Yiu. Called "Issues and Key Messages," it was intended to alert them to issues about Pure North contained in AHS records that were to be released to CBC News under freedom of information.
A briefing note prepared for AHS Dr. Verna Yiu outlined concerns with the Pure North alternative health program.
Pure North at that time was seeking a total of $50 million in funding to "improve depression and anxiety in the homeless and those suffering from addictions in Calgary and Edmonton" through high-dose vitamin supplements and the removal of mercury-based dental fillings. The briefing note states there is "insufficient evidence" that either treatment works.
CBC News reported in early April that Alberta Health gave Pure North $10 million in December 2013, against the advice of ministry officials, to expand its program ultimately to thousands of Alberta seniors.
The briefing note specifically warns Hoffman and Yiu about an incident, identified by CBC News as occurring at the Calgary Drop-In Centre in 2013, in which AHS dietitians raised concerns about Pure North's supplement program.
"The concerns were about the potential for negative health effects [from the] non-evidence-based practice of providing megadoses of vitamins and minerals exceeding recommended levels," the briefing note states, adding an additional concern was that "the individuals offered these megadoses may not have the ability to properly assess the safety of what is being offered."
A Pure North spokesperson has said the foundation was not told about the drop-in centre incident. Despite the concerns of public health officials, Pure North points to research studies it says show the program is safe and effective.
Minister should be aware of risks
Dr. Alun Edwards, a senior AHS medical director, is quoted in the briefing note as saying the Pure North program "hits the borderline for appropriateness."
Cooper said it is "concerning" that AHS has detailed safety concerns with the Pure North program, yet Hoffman does not appear to be investigating them.
Wildrose accountability critic Nathan Cooper says Hoffman needs to explain a briefing note that appears to contradict her public statements. (Legislative Assembly of Alberta)
"The minister absolutely must be aware of any risks or concerns with the ongoings of the program," he said. "She is the one that needs to be responsible to ensure that those who are engaged in the program are safe and receiving appropriate care."
When Hoffman became health minister in 2015, she refused, based on advice from her officials, to give Pure North more funding for its seniors program. But in October 2016, her ministry signed a grant with the foundation for a nurse-practitioner-led primary care clinic in Calgary. The grant is worth up to $4.2 million over several years.
Hoffman has insisted Pure North will not be offering any of its alternative-health treatments at its primary care clinic and it will not refer patients to its other program.
Cooper said the Wildrose will continue to press for answers from Hoffman in the legislature.
"We are seeing a track record from this government of a lack of openness and transparency" Cooper said. "And now we see the health department ducking and weaving on a very, very important issue of transparency."
Interesting to follow the money and players in this story - In times of overstretched resources, why would we fund - directly or indirectly an unproven program - a program that is using human subjects to make a case for their products.