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Queue-jumping inquiry report surely wounds Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman

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Raj Sherman

Time will tell if the report of Alberta's inquiry into medical queue jumping turns out to be the skillful strategic win for the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Alison Redford it appeared to be when it was released yesterday morning.

But one thing is virtually certain: the much-anticipated conclusions by retired Justice John Z. Vertes -- whose yearlong effort to get to the bottom of allegations about line jumping in Alberta’s health care system was properly known as the Health Services Preferential Access Inquiry -- is bound to be a political catastrophe for Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman.

Vertes' report all but called Sherman a liar -- or, to put an only slightly more kindly spin on it, a deluded fantasist. It's hard to see how the part-time Emergency Room physician and former PC Parliamentary Secretary for Health can escape the political consequences of that harsh judgment.

In a nutshell, after months of testimony, the commissioner reached the conclusion there was no basis whatsoever for the startling allegations of routine line jumping that contributed to the brouhaha that sparked the inquiry -- claims made principally by Sherman and former Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, in public at least.

As for Duckett, it’s doubtful he'll care much about the slings and arrows shot by Vertes. The PhD economist hired to run AHS in 2009 and fired when he became a political embarrassment to the Conservative government under then-premier Ed Stelmach in 2010 is back in his native Australia, lionized by the antipodean media and sitting pretty as a director of an influential health care think tank.

He mildly expressed disappointment with the report's tone in an email interview with a local newspaper yesterday. Given the man's personality, however, we can anticipate a more entertaining riposte from Duckett sometime in the next few weeks. But the uncomplimentary judgment of a provincial inquiry in faraway Alberta is not going to do him any harm Down Under.

The fate of Sherman, who was notably absent yesterday at Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre where the report was released, is a different story though.

Tracked down by the local media, the former Opposition leader rather lamely seemed to suggest it had all been a misunderstanding … by the media. He's going to have to do better than that, however, if he expects to salvage any credibility from this situation.

As for the government, its representatives strategically avoided the late-morning news conference at which the report was released -- and why wouldn't they, since on the political questions that mattered the report essentially did the government's work for it?

Not only did Commissioner Vertes conclude there was no basis for Sherman's and Duckett's original allegations, he dismissed the few examples of preferential treatment the inquiry did manage to uncover as little more than accidents, unintentional efforts by overly conscientious physicians and the exertions of well-meaning health system executives who made "courtesy calls" on behalf of VIP patients.

Obviously the government's profound hope is now for everyone to pay no attention until after Labour Day, whereupon we can expect a flurry of news releases on unrelated topics.

Ever after, of course, Premier Redford and her ministers can point to the commissioner's favourable conclusions -- never mind that the inquiry was never allowed to look into allegations of bullying and intimidation of health care professionals or that it was instructed to stop its work almost as soon as it stumbled upon a case or two of actual queue jumping.

Still, with Sherman twisting in the wind, Health Minister Fred Horne couldn't resist summoning the media and gleefully telling reporters that Sherman and Duckett really ought to "look to their own conscience to decide what they do in response to that finding."

They will decide to do something, of course, but the result won't be the apology Horne was not-so-subtly hinting at.

The absence of the Liberal leader and representatives of the government didn't mean Opposition politicians weren't on hand to make a little hay while the last of the summer sun shone on.

Wildrose Opposition Leader Danielle Smith and NDP Health Critic David Eggen -- both representing parties that unlike either the Tories or Liberals were not likely to face embarrassing questions from the media throng -- turned up in businesslike grey suits and professionally landed a few easy punches on the government for the shortcomings of the inquiry's mandate and the government's past performance.

Both managed to look like serious people, potential premiers even, and wisely refrained from saying anything critical about the commissioner's anodyne recommendations. Nor did they assail the cost of the inquiry, which had a $10-million budget, but, it is predicted, will turn out to have cost considerably less.

No need to repeat the inquiry's recommendations here. Readers of this blog can read them for themselves in the mainstream media. Suffice it to say only that most were not particularly earth shattering and some were sufficiently broad to be meaningless:

"Recommendation 4: Reduce wait times."

Well, yes, that would help!

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

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