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Deputy regional health officer, Dr. Judy MacDonald, waits in front of the Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary, Friday, Nov. 14, 2003, for a news conference to begin. The Calgary Regional Health Authority made plea to the public to not over use the emergency room's in it's hospitals. (Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail)
Deputy regional health officer, Dr. Judy MacDonald, waits in front of the Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary, Friday, Nov. 14, 2003, for a news conference to begin. The Calgary Regional Health Authority made plea to the public to not over use the emergency room's in it's hospitals. (Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail)

Globe Editorial

Judicial inquiry into Alberta health allegations a step too far Add to ...

Allegations of wrongdoing in Alberta's health-care system have reached a level that deserves an investigation.

They include claims the government covered up the deaths of 250 cancer patients, bullied dissident physicians into leaving the province and failed to address emergency-room overcrowding. The government has glibly dismissed the allegations as political ploys.

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Lost amid the political jockeying are two key issues. The first is patient care: Did any of the 250 cancer patients die needlessly and were warnings of overcrowding ignored?

To find an answer, the government took an appropriate step and called in the Health Quality Council of Alberta - though only after opposition pressure to do so. The independent council will investigate all those cases, call anonymous witnesses, offer immunity from liability and, most importantly, set its own terms of reference. Medical leaders respect the council. Its CEO feels its investigation will be a good first step, and should be trusted.

The council cannot, however, compel anyone to testify. That would require a broad judicial inquiry, sought by an opposition that has changed its tune now that the government has yielded to the initial demands. Justice Minister Verlyn Olson was right to call a judicial inquiry "a blunt tool"; it may eventually be necessary, but would risk giving blanket immunity to those who committed the very acts an investigation is meant to uncover.

The second issue concerns what the council won't look at: accusations of bribery and cover-up. Evidence of such claims should be taken to the police, the Auditor-General or the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Premier Ed Stelmach is correct in insisting that health-care workers have a duty to report such evidence.

The Premier erred, however, in delaying an inquiry and accusing the opposition of playing "political football." Had they not spoken up, there might have been no investigation.

One wild card remains: the Alberta Medical Association, which has remained quiet. Its silence is unusual. If it feels a full inquiry is necessary, the AMA should say so. Otherwise, it's up to the council to set wide terms of reference and provide a non-partisan perspective. It must be left to the medical professionals - a judicial inquiry should be called only if they find strong evidence of wrongdoing.

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