In other medical news, Alberta seems to be suffering an epidemic of mild memory loss. Not just Alberta, either. The problem has cropped up Down Under as well!
The Health Services Preferential Access Inquiry, known to most Albertans as the Queue-Jumping Inquiry or words to that effect, completed its second day in Edmonton yesterday with a couple of star witnesses on the stand -- or whatever the stand called when it isn't technically speaking at a judicial inquiry and the judge running it doesn't actually work as a judge any more.
Answering the commission counsel's gentle questions yesterday were former Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, testifying by a rather disconcertingly out-of-sync video link from his office in Melbourne, Australia, a box of cookies on display behind him on the credenza; and Dr. David Megran, who once upon a time worked for Dr. Duckett and is now chief medical officer for clinical operations at AHS.
Back in 2009 before Dr. Duckett became the first health-care CEO to be fired for waving a cookie at a reporter, the Australian PhD economist and Megran co-authored a memorandum that suggested the practice of queue jumping by well-connected Albertans was "not uncommon" in the province's public health system.
This seems to have been the jumping-off point for the provincial government's plan to hold a $10-million inquiry into lineup leapfrogging. This is odd when you think about it, because what everybody was demanding back in February 2011 was a judicial inquiry into the intimidation and bullying of health professionals. Alas, that topic is beyond the purview of this affair.
Regardless, on a couple of occasions after he was fired, one in a farewell speech to his troops in Edmonton and the other at a health-care conference in Toronto, Duckett dropped the additional bombshell that there were "go-to guys" or "Mr. Fix-Its" in the system whose job it was to help MLAs get their favourite constituents discreetly moved up the waiting lists that seemed to be plaguing the health care system at the time.
But in the event, neither Megran, who testified in the morning before retired judge John Vertes, or Duckett, who testified in the afternoon (although it was still morning in Melbourne) could remember very much.
They did remember working together on the memo in May 2009, but according to the Edmonton Journal couldn't quite recall who started the ball rolling. Megran thought Duckett asked him to write it; Duckett seemed to think Megran brought it up.
Megran said he had no knowledge whatsoever of any preferential or expedited care. He admitted it was an odd statement to make if he was not aware of the issue. But he explained that he was working many hours a week in those days. He may have "succumbed to confusion" about requests for preferential care versus common requests for information about how to navigate the health system, he said. "I don't recollect my actual thought processes."
Duckett indicated that while he was aware of the problem, he was never moved to ask about the names of the offending MLAs. "I wasn't particularly interested in witch hunts."
Moreover, Duckett remembered, he had heard a number of MLAs were unhappy about that the practice of having a go-to guy was ended, but he only heard about it from other people. "I didn't have the names. I didn't seek the names. What I was keen to do was stop the practice," he explained.
Could he recall the name of any MLA, the commission's council wondered. Well, yes! Raj Sherman.
Sherman, alert readers will recall, was then a Conservative insider. Now he is the leader of the provincial Liberal Party in the Legislature. He also has worked as an Emergency Room physician, so he's familiar with waiting lists.
Well, Dr. Sherman told me later, he was unhappy that the go-to person for MLAs had been eliminated, but his concern had nothing at all to do with preferential treatment. "The MLAs needed a point-person to talk to, it's true. But the issue of preferential access, that was never a focus of our concern."
"The waiting list never came up," he said. "The words 'Mr. Fix-It' never came up."
"This is why I've always said this is not what this inquiry should be focused on," said Sherman, who will testify on Dec. 13, the inquiry's last day in Edmonton.
The inquiry will resume in Calgary in January. It is to hear today from Dr. Paul Parks, the Medicine Hat medico who in 2010 as head of the Alberta Medical Association's emergency medicine section catalogued the shocking state of Edmonton's University of Alberta Hospital Emergency Ward through 2008 and 2009.
So we are left with this: The practice of queue jumping was said to be deeply ingrained in the system. The memo discussed at the inquiry yesterday said to refer all requests to Duckett himself. He says he never received any requests.
So we are left to wonder: Can he really imagine the practice ended with a single memorandum?
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