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Canada Alberta legislature finds yet another health executive receiving fast-track private care

Alberta health minister Fred Horne says it’s OK for AHS to agree to pay citizenship costs if necessary, including mandatory tests, for top-end talent it is trying to recruit from abroad.

Sandor Fizli/The Globe and Mail

Alberta's legislature erupted in shouts and accusations Wednesday after the Opposition Wildrose party said it found evidence that another health executive got fast-track private care at public expense.

Premier Alison Redford's government, however, said the case of Alison Tonge is no such thing.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith told the house in question period that documents from a freedom of information search showed that Tonge was reimbursed $1,160 by Alberta Health Services last year for diagnostic tests at a private Edmonton clinic.

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"This is two-tier, queue-jumping expense account abuse all wrapped up in one offensive package. Someone needs to lose their job," Smith told the house.

"The culture of entitlement that we saw with other executives under the former health regions and under previous health ministers is still alive despite this premier's claim to having eradicated it."

Redford fired back that the Wildrose was off base.

"The purpose of question period is not to come up with false allegations, mischaracterizations, and undermine public health care," she said.

The Tonge tests were completed in December 2011 and the expenses approved by Dr. Chris Eagle, president of Alberta Health Services, in January 2012.

Alberta Health Services, also known as AHS, directs day-to-day care in the province, and is ultimately answerable to Health Minister Fred Horne.

Tonge has since left AHS, receiving $426,576 in severance according to the Wildrose, and now works for the National Health Service in England.

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Tonge said she believes the costs were related to blood and urine tests required under federal rules as part of her citizenship application.

"The government provides a list of accredited providers of immigration medical exams and you are obliged to use these," Tonge said in an email to The Canadian Press.

The test costs are normally borne by the applicant, but Tonge said the province agreed to pay for them as part of a recruitment package to bring her and her family over to Alberta from the United Kingdom.

AHS spokesman Roman Cooney confirmed Tonge's statement and explained that the tests are provided and administered outside of the public health system.

"It would not be correct to suggest that somehow Ms. Tonge used this to get access to services that other Albertans would not have access to," said Cooney.

Cooney said AHS does not always cover test costs for applicants, but will if it deems it necessary.

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"We do it for strategic reasons and in this case that was the decision that was made."

Horne said outside the house that it is OK in principle for AHS to agree to pay citizenship costs if necessary, including mandatory tests, for top-end talent it is trying to recruit from abroad.

"My understanding is a lot of employers will cover these expenses for people who are coming from out of country who want to be permanent residents in Canada," said Horne.

It was the second time this week the minister has had to deal with accusations of lavish and inappropriate spending by health executives prior to or after 2008, when all health regions were merged into the current AHS superboard.

On Tuesday, Horne admitted he found it "offensive" that former Edmonton region vice-president Michele Lahey was reimbursed more than $7,000 by taxpayers to get cancer followup care at the prestigious private Mayo Clinic in 2007. Lahey now works at a private hospital in England and Horne said there's no way to recoup the money.

Last summer, the chief financial officer of AHS, Allaudin Merali, resigned when documents came to light showing that when he worked for the old Edmonton-area Capital Health Region he charged taxpayers almost $370,000 for pricey restaurant meals, to fix his Mercedes Benz and to hire a butler.

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Horne said the government tightened up the rules and oversight on executive spending last fall to eliminate the recurrence of such expense claims.

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