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Raj Sherman saga will do no good for legitimate criticisms of Alberta's health system

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Raj Sherman, Independent Alberta MLA

One of the most unfortunate aspects of the Raj Sherman saga, which surely lurched to a merciful end yesterday, is that it will tend to discredit anyone who comes forward with a legitimate criticism about the parlous state of Alberta's health care system.

Needless to say, it will suit some people in the system very nicely if this sad affair turns out to have a half-life longer than a Plutonium isotope.

A week ago, the Independent MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark made shocking allegations in the Legislature of deep corruption in the health-care system, including millions of dollars in hush money paid to doctors to shut them up about hundreds of needless deaths of Alberta cancer patients on waiting lists.

An Edmonton Emergency Room physician and former Conservative Parliamentary Assistant for Health, Sherman told the Legislature on Feb. 29, according to Hansard, "It has also come to my attention that physicians who raised these issues were either punished or driven out of the province or paid out in millions to buy their silence and the costs buried in the books under the former Capital health region, I'm not surprised that this was never made public."

But called upon to produce facts to support his allegations, Sherman came back to the Legislature yesterday and failed to do so. The effect wasn't very entertaining -- it was merely sad.

Sherman brought a box of documents. The contents provided no proof of his most serious allegations.

Sherman's claims fell into two categories: That people died of cancer while on waiting lists for surgery, and that some kind of conspiracy existed to pay off some doctors who complained to shut them up, and drive others out of the province.

No one who has observed the Alberta health-care system as it careened from crisis to crisis under a series of Conservative cabinet ministers, has trouble believing there is something to the first allegation. It is a harsh reality of any health care system, no matter how it's structured, that some patients will die tragically while waiting for surgery.

That Alberta's health system -- especially in Edmonton -- faces a bed crisis to which the government has contributed, and which certainly has had an impact on surgical as well as emergency services, is hard to dispute.

The crisis is real and well documented, and the cause -- the government's ideologically motivated decision not to build desperately needed long-term-care beds for patients who are now blocking acute care and emergency beds -- is well known and well understood.

But as stated in this space before, the idea of a massive cover-up, including huge payments to unhappy physicians, simply strains credulity. No conspiracy of this magnitude could ever stay hidden for long in an organization as big and complex as the Capital Health Region, let alone the province-wide Alberta Health Services behemoth that replaced it.

Surely no one who understood the health system and all its imperfections ever really believed Sherman about this part of his dramatic tale.

Nevertheless, that's his story and he's sticking to it. "I have very credible and very reliable sources that are willing to talk," he told the Edmonton Journal. "They just need to talk in an open public investigation where they are sure they will not be punished and admonished by government or their medical licence will not be at risk."

By now, most Albertans are screaming, "Show me!"

One can't help but feel considerable sympathy for Sherman in this situation. An articulate and likeable man, he rose to great heights, occupying an important post the Conservative government and, after he was fired for speaking out too bluntly, for a time appearing to be the most popular politician in Alberta. Many Albertans talked about him as a potential premier, an idea he appeared to take to heart.

No more. He still has his defenders -- as the comments section of newspaper reports of his performance yesterday attest. But for most Alberta electors, it is fair to conclude that the only reason he could hope to get a job as dogcatcher is because it's not an elected position in this province.

The next chapter in this story will be written by Iris Evans, now the government's Minister of International Affairs. The MLA for Sherwood Park was once Alberta's health minister and is the only current MLA to have been named in the House in Sherman's claims of conspiracy.

As such, she is the only person who can ask to have Sherman censured for his comments.

It will be a mercy to everyone if Evans concludes pity is a more appropriate response than vengeance.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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