EDMONTON — Alberta’s health minister, bowing to pressure from doctors and political opponents, has ordered an independent review to resolve allegations of dangerously substandard care and needless deaths in the hospital system.
Gene Zwozdesky told the legislature Thursday that anyone who testifies before the Health Quality Council won’t have to worry about retribution or punishment.
“They will have the full protection of the regulation and the law of this province and that guarantees their anonymity,” he said.
Premier Ed Stelmach’s government has been under fire in recent days to call in the Health Quality Council, an arm’s-length panel of physicians and professionals who assess and critique the system.
The council can’t investigate until directed to do so by the province.
Critics want answers on problems in emergency room care that were first raised in the house late last year. Physicians have said that long waiting times, sometimes up to 20 hours, were leading to suffering and in some cases death.
Last year, the government heard of 322 cases of substandard care in the emergency department at just one facility, the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton.
Alberta Health Services, the delivery arm of the health department, has since been examining those cases in question, but the Alberta Medical Association says the investigation is making little headway because doctors are afraid to come forward.
The smoldering issue was reignited last week when Raj Sherman, an Independent politician booted from Stelmach’s caucus last year for his health-care criticisms, made a fresh set of allegations.
Sherman, who is also an emergency room doctor, said that about six years ago, 250 patients died on a cancer surgery wait list.
Sherman said that health officials paid out, and doctors accepted, millions of dollars in bribes to keep the deaths quiet. He also said that health officials committed fraud by keeping two sets of financial ledgers to hide the hush money payoffs.
Two officials were identified by name by Sherman as being part of the conspiracy. Since then, Sherman has confounded critics and proponents alike by repeatedly promising to deliver evidence of his allegations, then changing his mind.
The probe announced Thursday will examine the cancer surgery allegations, but not the allegations of bribes or fraud. Stelmach has said it’s still incumbent on Sherman to give the government some indication those accusations have merit before they begin accusing people.
He has labelled those charges “a wild goose chase.”