Does Stephen Duckett really believe that satisfying his craving for a cookie is more important than responding to Albertans’ concerns about the delivery of health care?
Has the chief executive officer of Alberta Health Services become so besieged by public and media questions about emergency department delays that he wants to duck reporters at any cost — even to the point that he is willing to make a mockery of himself, the health delivery system he represents and the people whose job it is to ask questions?
Of course not, but his performance last week certainly helped bring the crisis in health delivery into focus.
Duckett is charged with a job that is of critical importance to Albertans.
Yet on Friday, Duckett declined to answer questions as he left talks on how to reduce wait times in emergency rooms across Alberta. He was eating a cookie and despite repeated — and polite — entreaties to answer questions from reporters, he kept walking, munching and refusing.
Reporters offered to wait until he was done eating. He kept walking, eating and refusing.
Later on Friday, Duckett posted a blog on the Alberta Health Services website that detailed the nature of the talks he had earlier attended — and refused to talk to the press about. He offered the information and links necessary to understand the protocols established at the talks to address the wait time problem.
He even made reference to the fundamental flaws in Alberta’s health system: staffing and bed issues.
In short, Duckett answered the questions that were posed to him earlier, when the cookie got in the way.
He made it clear that the hastily arranged summit to address the health-care crisis had made progress; that Alberta Health Services had heard the growing chorus of complaints — professional, public and political — and was prepared to deal with those complaints.
The next day, he offered a blog apology over the cookie incident — after it went viral on the Internet.
The apology said that a decision had been made during the summit to have a health professional brief the media about the outcome. In addition, he said, “However, it has been my practice that because I am not an elected official, I do not respond to comments from elected officials. I should have stopped to make all this clear.”
He was no doubt referring to concerns raised earlier in the week by then-Conservative MLA Raj Sherman, himself an emergency room doctor. Sherman, the parliamentary assistant to Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, laid blame for the horrendous emergency department wait times across the province at the feet of Alberta Health Services and his political confederates, including Premier Ed Stelmach. (Sherman was suspended from caucus on Monday.)
There is certainly enough blame in this crisis in care to go around.
Conservative government decisions dating back to Ralph Klein mean the province has failed to keep pace with the health-care needs of Albertans, both in the provision of beds and the staff to care for the ill, injured and infirm.
That’s not Duckett’s doing, but it is his job to fix it — with support and direction from his political masters. Sometimes that direction comes in the form of harsh criticism, as it did from Sherman. Sherman, like most Albertans, is frustrated with delivery of care. He, like many Albertans, has first-hand experience: his critically ill father languished in an Edmonton emergency room recently. It is the kind of situation that has Albertans angered and distrustful.
The emergency care crisis is appalling and must be permanently fixed. Sherman helped to crystallize the issue by saying that he is “fed up” with the system’s failures.
Duckett needs to understand that Albertans share Sherman’s despair and want their health system fixed quickly and thoroughly.
And the political masters who direct Duckett need to understand that he and the Alberta Health Services superboard that this government appointed to help manage the system can’t get the job done without the necessary tools — the cash and commitment that only elected leaders can supply.
And when the job gets done and health care is once again efficient, caring and inclusive, Duckett can enjoy his cookies.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.