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Alberta's ER crisis moves from full-blown swivet to three-ring circus!

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Timeline of Alberta ER crisis

Can Ed Stelmach's Conservative government really be so vindictive they'd go after a high-profile critic's medical license?

That kind of thing was being said in Alberta last week by people who didn't appear to be joking.

The province is in enough of an uproar over the government's spectacular mishandling of the health care file that plenty of Albertans are inclined to believe it. You can't go into a restaurant, a hair salon or a Tim Horton's in Alberta these days without hearing things like this said aloud by ordinary folks for whom politics and health care policy are normally a foreign country.

Even a week ago, most people who noticed would have said impossible. After all, nobody's that dumb!

Well, today -- as the province's Emergency Room crisis morphs from a full-blown swivet into a three-ring circus -- Albertans are not so sure.

Alert readers recall that a waiting-time crisis in Alberta’s hospital emergency wards has been growing ever larger on the provincial radar screen for weeks.

Then things really started to spin out of control around 3 a.m. on Nov. 17 when Dr. Raj Sherman, an emergency room physician and the only medical doctor in Premier Stelmach's Conservative caucus, sent an emotional email to numerous political and medical colleagues. The email tore a strip off his own government for its handling of the crisis.

The next day the likeable Sherman, then the Conservative MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark, apologized to Stelmach. The premier publicly forgave him and sensible political observers concluded everyone would soon go back to sleep.

After all, surely that's what would have happened if Premier Stelmach and his close advisors had even a grain of political common sense. Well, boy, was that bet ever out to lunch!

On Nov. 19, a Friday, Sherman got up on his hind legs in the Legislature and continued to criticize the premier. He also aimed some barbed shots at the managers of Alberta Health Services and former Health Minister Ron Liepert, a politician with a reputation for being thin-skinned. (Liepert seems to be the person principally responsible for setting in motion the whole loony plan to eliminate the province's nine health regions, which by and large had been working pretty well, and replace them with a single health board, which has been a disaster.)

Also on Nov. 19, Stephen Duckett, the undiplomatic Australian CEO of Alberta's single province-wide health board, did his now notorious Cookie Walk on his way back from a meeting about how to fix the ER brouhaha. Who can know what he was thinking when he started waving an oatmeal cookie at reporters and screeching while the cameras rolled? Maybe he was homesick for Australia?

Needless to say, these events ratcheted up the level of hysteria considerably.

We can only speculate on this next point, but it appears as if over the weekend, Liepert and possibly other hard liners in the Conservative caucus demanded that the premier sack Sherman. As if that would shut him up!

On Monday, the premier flip-flopped and canned Sherman.

On Wednesday, Stelmach all but demanded that Duckett be fired by the supposedly independent AHS Board.

Wednesday night and Thursday, the Opposition parties organized a 27-hour health crisis filibuster in the Legislature that left everyone tired and cranky, and several with graying stubble on their chins.

On Thursday, a divided AHS Board complied with the demands from the premier and Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky that Duckett be forced to take the high jump. Over the side he went -- with the promise of $680,000 in Alberta taxpayers' money to ease his way.

At this point, as readers can imagine, it seemed impossible matters could get any more hysterical.

But that was before Friday, when we learned from the press that Sherman was accusing several Conservative MLAs and the president of the Alberta Medical Association of taking part in a smear campaign orchestrated by the Conservative government to discredit him.

Among Sherman's startling accusations, all reported in plain English in the pages of the Edmonton Journal, were:

-    That he'd been told by the head psychiatrist of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta that his medical license could be suspended if he didn't submit to a mental health assessment.

-    That he'd been informed by Yvonne Fritz, the minister of children and youth services, the pleasant-looking lady usually seen sitting behind the premier's right shoulder during Question Period: "Raj, you need to be taken to emergency, and you need to see a psychiatrist to be locked up."

-    That Government Whip Robin Campbell, "Called me a cancer. He said: 'Raj, you're a doctor. You know what we do with cancers. We cut them out.'"

-    And that Edmonton-Rutherford MLA Fred Horne took part in the alleged conspiracy when he discussed Sherman's mental state early in the week with AMA President Dr. Patrick White, a psychiatrist.

Needless to say, everyone named by the Journal forcefully denies Sherman's interpretation of events.

All we can say with conviction at this point is that more sound and fury – though, signifying what remains an open question -- is sure to be heard on Monday, when NDP Leader Brian Mason says he will rise on a point of privilege and allege that the usually mild-mannered Horne engaged in "intimidation and obstruction" against Sherman.

Now, Horne strikes most people a man normally as likeable and positive as Sherman. One can't help but think that these are two nice guys caught up in something bigger than both of them.

Be that as it may, Mason's argument is pretty clear: "Mr. Horne has been around the medical profession a very long time and he undoubtedly knows that when you bring those kinds of suggestions forward to someone in a senior, responsible position, they have to take some action and they have to initiate something,” the NDP leader told the Journal. "I can’t see it as anything else but a calculated attempt to harm Mr. Sherman's reputation and interfere in his ability to do his job."

So fasten your seatbelts, folks. We aren't getting off this rollercoaster any time soon!

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

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