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Former Alberta health CEO's 'expedited care' accusations ignite firestorm that won't go out

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Former Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett

The forest fire burning north of Fort McMurray isn't the only blaze that's out of control in Alberta right now.

The political conflagration ignited May 5 by former Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett is completely out of control too, and with Premier Ed Stelmach and Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky in charge of the fire brigade it may burn through a lot of Tory timber before things start to cool down.

Duckett, fired by the government last November and now working as a health administration professor at the University of Alberta, told a medical conference in Toronto that back in the day Conservative MLAs made it a practice to help their friends and patrons jump the queue for medical treatment. Word of this bombshell, via a video posted online by the conference organizers, leaked to the Alberta media a month later.

Since then, all hell's been breaking loose, and things show no sign of settling down.

Yesterday, Conservative leadership contender and former justice minister Alison Redford joined Opposition calls for an independent judicial inquiry with the power to subpoena witnesses, while New Democrat Leader Brian Mason set up a political version of the Crime Stoppers tip line and literally called the cops.

Candidate Doug Griffiths has also called for an inquiry, revealing a significant fissure in Conservative ranks between Griffiths and Redford on one side and the other leadership candidates on the other.

It's hard to say what Redford's ballsy decision to side with the Opposition does to her prospects of winning the leadership -- it certainly didn't win her any friends in the current cabinet, which for some reason is desperately trying to squelch an inquiry on a whole range of alleged power abuses in the province's health-care system.

A testy Premier Stelmach told reporters yesterday that "you'd have to ask why she took the position," adding, "some of the leadership candidates are going to try to differentiate themselves and this is one way of doing it."

The premier crankily compared Redford to health-care gadfly, Emergency Room physician and Independent MLA Raj Sherman, the former Parliamentary Assistant for Health that Stelmach fired from cabinet and the Tory caucus in Nov. 2010 for speaking publicly about intimidation of doctors by senior health bureaucrats. He also compared her to the NDP leader. Neither comparison is considered a compliment in Alberta Conservative circles.

As for Mason and the New Democrats, that party was not unique in calling for an inquiry. All the Opposition parties have done that. But seeing as the government was denying anything could happen as outrageous as a Tory MLA lobbying to get someone moved up on a medical waiting list, he had his party set up its own Medical Crime Stoppers line. So far, Mason told the Edmonton Journal, seven tips have been left, two of which he described "cases of significance."

Mason quickly penned a letter to the RCMP's Northern Alberta division calling for a criminal investigation, arguing that meddling in the health care system by elected officials would be a breach of trust, a criminal offence.

The Edmonton Journal swiftly trotted out a U of A law professor to suggest any investigation into that would be expensive and difficult to prove -- always a good reason not to investigate a crime, eh? In reality, one imagines, this case would be relatively easy to crack as criminal investigations go.

Could Duckett assist with this? He was, after all, in a position to discover where at least some of the bodies were buried during his short tenure at the head of Alberta Health Services before he was fired, technically for gesturing rudely with a cookie but in reality for becoming a political liability to Stelmach's government.

He now has a grievance with the Stelmach government and seems determined to stick around and salvage his reputation. As we all may learn, hell has no fury like an Australian health-care economist scorned!

Someone -- it remains to be determined whom -- this week gave the Journal a memorandum that proves Duckett was worrying about this issue way back in June 2009.

As has been reported frequently, the terms of Duckett's departure are not known, beyond the fact that he received a severance payment not unadjacent to $700,000. However, it has been speculated upon that the deal must have included some kind of non-disclosure agreement.

If so, the latest brouhaha must be playing out pretty much as Duckett imagined when he dropped the bomb in his Toronto speech. As he will no doubt soon be advised, he would not be breaking any non-disclosure agreement if compelled to name names by an inquiry, or even if asked nicely by the police.

As things so often go in such investigations, once one suspect is identified, it won't take long for other names to be revealed.

Even if no criminal charges resulted, given the mood of the Alberta electorate, any MLAs identified as helping their friends get "expedited care" could expect to kiss their political careers goodbye.

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

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