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Politics Interventions at Alberta hospitals weren’t special treatment, former health executive says

Sheila Weatherill, shown in 2009, was chief executive officer of the Capital Health Region before it was absorbed into Alberta Health Services.

BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS

A former Alberta health executive says she took calls from politicians and advised hospital staff of incoming VIPs, but insists she didn't expect anyone to receive special treatment because of her interventions, an inquiry has been told.

Sheila Weatherill, who was chief executive officer of the Capital Health Region before it was absorbed into the Alberta Health Services superboard, told the provincial inquiry into allegations of queue jumping that she would pass inquiries on to health facilities as information only, not as a way to ensure preferential care.

Ms. Weatherill, who resigned from the AHS board last year amid a controversy over a health executive's expenses that she approved, testified on Monday in Calgary that when MLAs would call her about patient care, "99 per cent of the time" it would be on behalf of constituents, and the rest were about friends or family. The majority of the calls, she added, were only for advice or "navigation" of the system.

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However, she did recall an MLA contacting her about a patient who would be entering the system with "extraordinary privacy issues" and "serious" health concerns.

Ms. Weatherill refused to name the MLA because she said the politician's work relationship with the patient would identify the patient and the health issues, and potentially "cause embarrassment."

She also said she acted only to the give the health care facility "awareness" to deal with issues of "privacy and security," not to get special care for the patient.

So far, no specific cases of a prominent person queue jumping have come to light.

Premier Alison Redford called for the probe, but with narrow terms of reference, after months of controversy over the state of the province's health-care system. The quasi-judicial inquiry is expected to cost $10-million, which the opposition politicians have describe as wasteful spending since it covers only queue jumping and does not address allegations of Tory party interference in health care. On Monday, a lawyer representing the Alberta government said the probe is spending too much time digging into the past instead of focusing on what's going on in the system now.

The inquiry is also partly due to allegations from former AHS chief executive officer Stephen Duckett, who wrote a memo in 2009 that said "preferential or expedited care for 'prominent' individuals" was "not uncommon" in the province. Mr. Duckett said he cracked down on queue-jumping when he took over in 2009, but testified that he knew of no specific cases.

So far, several witnesses have testified that MLAs and their staffers had called AHS executives to help people navigate the system or complain about care.

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Brigitte McDonough, who was once head of critical care at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, said she worked in a culture where doctors and nurses were told about prominent patients.

"It was well known that when Sheila wanted something, you jumped," she testified last month.

On Monday, Nick Juric, a retired registered nurse who worked at the university hospital in Edmonton, said that some time before June, 2006, he received a call from Ms. McDonough ordering him to "scrub" arrangements for a bed. Instead, a patient who was to be placed in a private room in pulmonary care was moved out to make way for a "board member" of Ms. Weatherill's.

"I told her no," Mr. Juric testified. "She insisted that I didn't have any option to say no."

Ms. Weatherill denied any knowledge of that incident or that patient.

The inquiry resumes on Wednesday.

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