UCP awards surgery contracts to party donor after years of lobbying

Prior to these contracts, all publicly-funded orthopedic surgeries occurred in AHS facilities.

Yesterday, the Alberta government announced that they had awarded a contract to a for-profit healthcare company to offer over “3,000 additional hip and knee replacements and other joint procedures a year”.

The government media release claimed that this new contract will increase how many orthopaedic surgeries are done in the Calgary area by 21% “compared to 2021–22”, but didn’t specify if that was for the 2022–23 budget year or over a longer timeframe.

The lucky for-profit Canadian Surgery Solutions, which operates two facilities in the Calgary area: one in Riverview and one in Rockyview.

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I’m not going to debate the merits of for-profit versus public healthcare. There are plenty of other people doing that.

No, I’m more curious about the company Canadian Surgery Solutions. You see, this isn’t the first contract they’ve been awarded by the UCP government.

You see, less than a year ago, the government announced that they had awarded a similar contract to an Edmonton for-profit healthcare provider: Surgical Centres Inc.

Now, you probably noticed that Surgical Centres Inc. and Canadian Surgery Solutions aren’t the same company name. However, what’s interesting is that last year’s announcement listed Surgical Centres Inc.’s president and CEO as Mohamed Nanji, and yesterday’s announcement listed CSS’ medical director, as Mohamed Nanji.

Earlier this month, Clearpoint Health Network Inc., the parent company for CSS, acquired SCI and made Nanji as senior advisor to the CEO.

Furthermore, Nanji’s SCI’s received a contract from the PC government in 2010 for 70% of Calgary’s non-hospital ophthalmologic surgical services.

There’s another interesting thing about Nanji: he donated $1,000 the UCP for their 2019 provincial election campaign.

Something else missing from the government media release yesterday is that SCI’s new parent company had been lobbying the provincial government long before this announcement and even before last June’s announcement.

According to the Alberta Lobbyist Registry, Clearpoint hired The Capital Hill Group, a lobbying firm based out of Ottawa, in January 2020, shortly after the UCP government announced their Alberta Surgical Wait-Times Initiative.

This new initiative, according to the government, would provide up to 80,000 more publicly funded surgeries over a 4-year period, and Clearpoint wanted to be a part of that.

The initial return that Capital Hill Group hired on behalf of Clearpoint said that they intended to lobby Alberta Health, the premier’s office, and cabinet on the “integration of independent providers within Alberta’s publicly funded health care system”.

“Independent” is a codeword for “for-profit”.

A year later, Clearpoint dropped Capital Hill Group and filed a new return under New West Public Affairs, which is based out of Calgary and founded by former Conservative MP Monte Solberg. Solberg and former Alberta premier Jason Kenney both served together in various cabinet positions while Stephen Harper was prime minister.

Solberg is a strong financial supporter of the UCP, having donated $3,600 in 2021 to the party and $500 to the party’s constituency association in Innisfail–Sylvan Lake; $4,191 to the party in 2020; $3,900 to the party and various candidates during the 2019 provincial election; $1,343.75 to the party in 2018; and $310 to the party in 2017.

Oh, and according to lobbying documents, Clearpoimt has received $3.5 million in funding from the Government of Alberta between October 2021 and October 2022.

This time, the intent of the lobbying was to:

Advocate for the removal of barriers to growth found within the Health Care Protection Act that restrict independent surgical providers from performing surgical procedures on out-of-province, uninsured inpatients, for payment.

A year later, when that return expired, New West filed a new initial return to “[seek] opportunity with Alberta Health Services to utilize contracted surgical facilities for orthopaedic procedures.”

That return expired this past September, but in October, New West filed a third initial return. This one had the same purpose: to lobby for opportunities for contracted orthopaedic surgeries.

But Clearpoint wasn’t the only one lobbying the UCP government.

Last July, Nanji’s SCI hired Prairie Sky Strategy, also out of Calgary, founded by Jeff Sterzuk, another strong financial supporter of the UCP.

He donated over $2,000 to various UCP constituency associations in 2021; nearly $4,000 for the same reason in 2020; nearly $2,000 to candidates and the party during the 2019 provincial election; and over $1,100 to UCP constituency associations and the party in 2018.

SCI’s initial return through Sterzuk’s company said that they intended to lobby “with regard to design and implementation of Alberta Surgical Initiative.”

I guess it’s a good thing that Clearpoint brought SCI into their for-profit family.

How much does Clearpoint and SCI stand to gain from these two contracts? Well, it’s hard to say for sure, but when the UCP released their 2022–2023 budget last spring, they claimed that they planned to spend “$133.1 million over 3 years of continued investment in the Alberta Surgical Initiative Capital Program”.

As well, an announcement from July 2021 said that the government was calling for proposals for “expanding orthopedic procedures in Edmonton and Calgary”. According to that announcement, “the total contract spend available for orthopedic surgeries in chartered surgical facilities for the 2021-22 fiscal year is approximately $13 million.”

As well, “as part of this expansion, the amount available for orthopedic surgeries in chartered surgical facilities is approximately $140 million over seven years.”

Prior to this request for proposals, all publicly-funded orthopedic surgeries occurred in AHS facilities.

Update (25 January 2023): An earlier version of this story said that New West received government funding. It’s since been corrected to show that it was actually Clearpoint, New West’s client, that received that funding.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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