As Alberta's controversial $10-million inquiry into queue jumping in the health-care system ended on Thursday after months of testimony – and a few revelations – the retired judge at the helm accused the Redford government of "interference" with the commission's independence.
Commissioner John Vertes said that with 3,000 pages of testimony from 68 witnesses to review as well as 158 exhibits, he can't meet the government's April 30 deadline to complete a "comprehensive and well-reasoned report." Cabinet turned down his request to have an extension until Oct. 31.
"Not only is such a rejection unprecedented, it borders on an interference with the independence of this commission, since it requires me to rush through a report that would not be as complete or thorough as I would want," Mr. Vertes said during his closing statement.
Writing to Progressive Conservative Health Minister Fred Horne this week, Mr. Vertes said he couldn't rule out the possibility of more hearings and that he'll work toward an Aug. 31 report.
Mr. Horne said cabinet will consider the second request for an extension and rejected the notion of interference.
"I don't think there's any basis to suggest that the government has in any way interfered with the inquiry," he said in an interview. "In fact, I've really gone out of my way not to comment in the media on the proceedings or on the way the inquiry's been conducted or on any aspect of it."
The opposition parties criticized the government for not promptly granting the extension.
Heather Forsyth, health critic for the Official Opposition Wildrose Party, said constituents have complained about the inquiry's costliness and ineffectiveness.
"They've never heard so many 'I don't recall's or 'I can't remember's," she said. "….I can't argue with the comments that I've heard continually for weeks on this."
Commission lead counsel Michele Hollins said she believes the inquiry fulfilled its mandate to determine whether VIPs had – or continue to have – improper preferential access to the system, despite the inevitable criticisms of the process. She said new information is being investigated, and said the door isn't closed to more testimony.
But were there any smoking guns? "That's ultimately for the public to say," Ms. Hollins said.
Witness offered some interesting testimony:
- H1N1: Public health nurses in Edmonton admitted inoculating friends and family after clinic hours and at home during the 2009 shortage of the influenza vaccine. The Calgary Flames and others connected to the hockey team were coached and paperwork doctored to make it look like they were vaccinated with the public, rather than a private facility set up for them.
- Private care: Helios Wellness Centre, where patients in Calgary pay up to $10,000 in annual membership fees, routinely got access to non-urgent colonoscopies at the public Forzani & MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre within weeks or months, while the public waited up to three years. The founder of Helios denied that the clinic was a “reward” to University of Calgary donors.
- VIPs: Sheila Weatherill, former boss of Edmonton’s Capital Health Region, said she called hospitals to warn them about VIP patients. “There would be no expectation, no direction given, no expectation of any extra service,” she said, adding that she did it because she felt there was “a value in passing on information.” A nurse also testified VIPs were sometimes given aliases.
- Doctors’ role: Orthopedic surgeon Nicholas Mohtadi said physicians regularly facilitate queue jumping because the system is so broken it causes long waits. Dr. Mohtadi said friends or colleagues often ask for appointments, leaving him torn between helping and respecting the waiting list. And so, he – and the “majority” of doctors – work longer hours to squeeze people in.
- MLA interference: Hired to lead Alberta Health Services, the amalgamated health authority, Australian health economist Stephen Duckett testified he heard Alberta MLAs regularly had people bumped up waiting lists. He didn’t find concrete evidence. “I wasn’t particularly interested in witch hunts,” he said. Former health minister Ron Liepert heard the same reports, but said he “didn’t see that as being my job” to investigate.