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Key witness takes stand

EDMONTON — The former chief executive of Alberta’s health superboard says he took flak from provincial politicians for not having “fix-it” people in place to help some people get preferential access to care.

But when Stephen Duckett was asked to name names Tuesday, he could come up with only one.

“A number of MLAs, but amongst others that I recall was Raj Sherman,” Duckett told the public inquiry looking into queue jumping in Alberta.

An emergency room doctor by trade and a former parliamentary assistant health minister in the government, Sherman has been a central defender of Alberta’s health care.

He was bounced from the Tories for his criticism of the system and went on to become Liberal leader. As leader of the Grits, he was one of the most prominent politicians calling for the inquiry.

Lawyer Michele Hollins pressed Duckett for more.

There were some rural members of the legislature, Duckett said, but Sherman was the only name he could recall.

“I can’t remember the names of them, sorry,” Duckett said.

Requests for an interview with Sherman were denied through the party. His staff said he would address the allegations when he testifies himself

Duckett is a key witness at the inquiry, which was called by Premier Alison Redford last February before the provincial election in the face of criticism from the opposition.

An Australian who was recruited by the province, Duckett took over as CEO of Alberta Health Services — the delivery arm of health care in the province — in March 2009.

But his tenure was tumultuous. Wait lists were long and there was controversy around steps taken to corral a ballooning deficit. He left the job in the fall of 2010 when he refused to talk to reporters following an emergency board meeting, saying he was busy eating a cookie.

Duckett testified Tuesday via video from Australia, a box of cookies clearly displayed on a desk behind him.

He said preferential treatment for prominent patients was an accepted practice before the creation of the superboard, when care was delivered by a network of smaller health regions, each with their own “fix-it people” at their helms.

But Duckett said he never asked for specific examples of queue-jumping when he took over Alberta Health Services because he wasn’t interested in dredging up the past.

Instead, he said he wanted to make sure that queue jumping was stopped.

“It didn’t seem to me to be productive to do a witch hunt to find out who had done this in the past,” Duckett told the inquiry.

“What was important was going forward on this issue and the past was the past as far as I was concerned and what I was interested in doing was ensuring that the practice stopped.”

Duckett took retired judge John Vertes through what he meant by “fix-it people.”

He said the CEOs in some of the larger regions, the Capital Health Region in Edmonton in particular, would deal with members of the legislature and other prominent people to fix “basically anything,” from the allocation of health dollars to preferential access to care.

Duckett said he instituted a policy in May 2009 where all requests for special access would go through him to relieve any pressure on local officials. His board supported him, but he said he faced criticism from members of the legislature.

Duckett testified that with his new policy in place, he never saw a request for special treatment during his time in the office.

However, he said in hindsight a special flu shot clinic for the Calgary Flames hockey team was wrong.

The Flames and their family were given their shots while thousands of Albertans waited in line when the H1N1 scare was at its peak in the fall of 2009. Two health services employees were eventually fired over the affair.

Duckett noted that a similar request from the Edmonton Oilers was turned down.

There were also differing versions offered Tuesday of how a memo that outlined queue jumping practices came to be.

Duckett suggested it was initiated by Dr. David Megran, who is now chief medical officer for AHS.

“He intimated to me that (under) previous leaderships, there was an acceptance of preferential access and he wanted to know what my views were.”

But Megran testified that he was not aware of special treatment in the health care system and said Duckett was the one who asked him to write the memo.

“I don’t recollect the specifics of how or why he asked me.”

Redford ordered the inquiry in February after the Alberta Health Quality Council released a scathing report of abuse and mismanagement in the system.

The council heard from many doctors who said that when they complained about poor patient care, they were bullied or even fired.

Redford initially said the inquiry would look into the bullying allegations, but later ordered the inquiry to focus on queue jumping — although she clarified it can follow the evidence where it goes.

Vertes, a retired senior judge on the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories, is to hear from 10 witnesses during its first week in Edmonton. It is scheduled to wrap up Jan. 18 in Calgary.

 
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