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Alberta's health care queue-jumping inquiry finds itself at a crucial fork in the road

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Brian Mason

With the revelation earlier this week of systematic queue jumping involving a private medical clinic in Calgary, Alberta's Health Care Preferential Treatment Inquiry has arrived at a critical fork in the road.

The credibility of the entire inquiry headed by retired justice John Vertes depends on whether it pursues the leads revealed in testimony about how the exclusive Helios Wellness Centre, for which clients are said to have paid $10,000 a year, managed to get its non-emergency patients jumped to the front of a long waiting list for a public colon cancer screening clinic.

Either the inquiry is a legitimate attempt to get to the bottom of accusations of line-jumping in Alberta's health care system -- called in response to claims by former Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, physician and politician Raj Sherman and others that the practice was routine -- or it is an expensive political kabuki drama whose goal is to obfuscate rather than illuminate.

If the inquiry does not take the time to properly examine the evidence that has now been revealed, as demanded in a letter yesterday to Vertes by Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason, it will be hard to imagine that the inquiry is much more than a smoke screen for the real sins of Alberta's Progressive Conservative government in health care.

There has always been a school of thought that that was that case -- pushed with particular vigour by the Opposition Wildrose Party, which sits to the right of the right-wing government of Premier Alison Redford -- and that the real topic of a health care inquiry should have been intimidation of medical professionals by health care system managers.

The suspicion that there might be something to this notion was hard to shake in the wake of day after day of testimony by senior health managers and former health officials barely able to remember their own names. At times it seemed as if "I can't recall" was becoming the unofficial motto of Alberta. The whole affair seemed tightly scripted.

Then, unexpectedly, there were the testimony concerning Helios -- which revealed that non-urgent patients referred by the private clinic to Calgary's Forzani and MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre, jointly run by Alberta Health Services and the University of Calgary Medical School out of a public hospital, were being fast-tracked for tests after waits of about three weeks, while other patients had to wait up to three years. Additional testimony yesterday revealed that some the line jumpers at the Forzani clinic were generous donors to the U of C.

While the media to date has concentrated on the Wildrose Party's right-wing critique of the inquiry and largely ignored the NDP and the Alberta Liberals led by Sherman, one suspects the Wildrosers are not much more comfortable with this line of inquiry than the government must be. Just the same, Wildrose Seniors Critic Kerry Towle gamely seconded Mason’s call for more time to be devoted to the issue.

Still, the Wildrose Party would be the one that argues increasing privatization will make things better, not worse as Mason says, and if the inquiry does take this route it is unlikely to help much with the implementation of the Wildrose wish list.

So the NDP seems to own this issue for now, and it is much harder for the media to ignore the party as it has been doing.

The government has allowed medical businesses like Helios and the controversial Copeman Clinic to operate in this province, Mason said in his letter to Vertes, "and it is, therefore, crucial to get to the bottom of whether these clinics exist to provide their clients with expedited care."

Like most of us who have observed the recent history of efforts by right-wing governments and businesses to increase privatization in health care in Alberta and Canada, Mason already knows the answer to that one -- of course they do!

Nevertheless, if the inquiry exists to do what the government says it exists to do, Vertes can hardly deny Mason's request to "allow an adequate amount of time to fully investigate and seek testimony from anyone who might have further knowledge of the practice that was uncovered in the testimony of this week."

The inquiry has announced it would sit an extra seven days to hear testimony about its terms of reference -- but not about the subject that really matters, which is now unavoidably before it.

"Should the commissioner reach the conclusion that an extension would be required in order to meet the terms of the mandate he has been given, he would direct a request to the minister of health for approval," inquiry Executive Director Sheila-Marie Cook told media in an email that illustrates another problem with this inquiry -- it's not a real judicial inquiry and hence it's not really independent of the government.

"The Order in Council which established the inquiry would then be amended to reflect any additional time that would be accorded," her note concluded.

Well, either Vertes will do as Mason suggests, or Albertans' cynicism about the process will appear to be completely justified.

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

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