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Queue jumping a reality for Alberta MLAs, health services CEO says

MLA Raj Sherman heads back into a filibuster debate on health care at the provincial legislature.

Jason Franson/The Globe and Mail

Alberta MLAs were known to regularly interfere with the health system, using certain "Mr. Fix-its" to move powerful people to the front of waiting lists, but the practice was stopped when an outsider took over, an inquiry has heard.

Stephen Duckett, an Australian economist recruited to serve as chief executive officer of the then-nascent Alberta Health Services (AHS) superboard three years ago, said in testimony Tuesday he was stunned to discover upon arriving in Alberta that "preferential access," or queue-jumping, was a reality.

He didn't, however, seek out specifics. "I wasn't particularly interested in witch hunts," he testified, later saying he wanted to stop the practice. "As long as everybody's in the same boat, then it's in the interest of everybody - the elite and the whole population - to ensure the system is a good one." An AHS attorney, in cross-examination, called the notion of interference hearsay.

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Dr. Duckett's testimony Tuesday came during Alberta's ongoing, quasi-judicial Health Quality Council of Alberta inquiry into queue jumping, one critics say is exceedingly narrow in scope.

Testimony is already at odds, leaving a murky picture about the extent of queue jumping. David Megran, another AHS health executive, said he knew of no examples and was following orders when he drafted a no-queue-jumping memo for Dr. Duckett. But Dr. Duckett later claimed it was Dr. Megran, a longtime Calgary health executive, who raised the issue, a sort of elephant in the room.

The brief memo said "preferential or expedited care for 'prominent' individuals" wasn't uncommon, and ordered all such requests to be kicked up the ladder to Dr. Duckett himself. None ever were, he said.

Dr. Duckett said he then faced regular criticism from MLAs, who he said now had no "Mr. Fix-it" to appeal to. He named only one complainant: Raj Sherman, an emergency room doctor who was, at the time, a PC MLA and parliamentary secretary for health. He's now the Liberal leader. "It wasn't the complaint of one MLA, it was an issue for every MLA," Dr. Sherman said late Tuesday. He's scheduled to testify at the inquiry.

In his testimony Tuesday, Dr. Megran frequently answered questions by saying he couldn't recall the events of 2009, but he did say he knew of no policy banning queue jumping before Dr. Duckett arrived. "My recollection is there was no formal policy, no documents such as this, saying expediting care is not appropriate," said Dr. Megran, who is now AHS's Chief Medical Officer.

Dr. Duckett was turfed by AHS in 2010, partially because of an uproar after he refused to speak publicly about a particular meeting because he was eating a cookie at the time. He testified Tuesday by video from Australia, speaking with a box of cookies behind him.

In Alberta, his brash style made him unpopular among many health professionals, who derided him as a bean-counter, but he has since been remembered fondly by some opposition politicians, who now cast him as a man fired for daring to stand up to government.

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Opposition MLAs say the $10-million inquiry is too narrow to be worthwhile. Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said witnesses already have "selective amnesia" in testimony, with others saying Premier Alison Redford's government steered the inquiry clear of major topics.

"The government deliberately limited it," NDP leader Brian Mason said, citing allegations of government intimidation of doctors. "They don't want to ask about that, because it leads right up to the government."

Health Minister Fred Horne declined to discuss the inquiry or its narrow terms of reference. The decision "was made by cabinet, so that decision is made," he said.

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