Health minister hails new era of openness

EDMONTON — Alberta’s health minister, under renewed attack Monday to address allegations of doctor intimidation, says if the intimidation took place, it doesn’t anymore.

EDMONTON — Alberta’s health minister, under renewed attack Monday to address allegations of doctor intimidation, says if the intimidation took place, it doesn’t anymore.

Gene Zwozdesky told the house during question period that there is a renewed co-operation among doctors, administrators, and the government.

“If there are some doctors out there five, 10, 20 years ago who feel angry, who felt some anxieties, who may have even feel alienated, I’m truly sorry,” said Zwozdesky.

“But I can assure you under the current policy, no such allegations are being made at the moment.

“There’s a new spirit of co-operation.”

Premier Ed Stelmach’s government has been under pressure from opposing politicians for weeks to call a full public inquiry into allegations that doctors who spoke out on problems with patient care were bullied by their bosses or threatened with lawsuits.

A small number of doctors have come forward in recent weeks with such stories of intimidation.

On Friday, the Alberta Medical Association, the professional body that speaks for almost all of the province’s 6,500 physicians, lent its name to the fight.

In a letter, association president Dr. Patrick White said a full inquiry is needed to clear the air.

Dr. Paul Parks, the head of emergency care for the association, has already said that the culture of intimidation has not ended and that staff are still being scapegoated for problems beyond their control.

Zwozdesky has rejected the call for a public inquiry.

He has already tasked the arm’s-length Health Quality Council to look into problems with long wait lists and poor patient outcomes, and said the council can, if need be, look into allegations of intimidation.

Zwodesky also noted that the association letter, while calling for the full public inquiry, still pledges to work with the Health Quality Council probe.

Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann told the legislature that the government is relying on weak excuses and that the Health Quality Council can’t compel witnesses to testify.

To further his call for a full inquiry, the Liberals released a list of officials they say were involved in correspondence surrounding a lawsuit filed by Dr. Ciaran McNamee.

McNamee, who now practises in the U.S., said in a 2006 lawsuit he was pushed out years earlier for speaking out on wait lists.

Swann told the house that a full inquiry with subpoena powers would open up the details of this lawsuit, which are still under a binding non-disclosure agreement between both parties.

“How does the premier plan on finding out what’s inside these documents?” Swann asked Stelmach.

“Easy,” replied Stelmach.

He said if both sides agree to waive the non-disclosure clause, it’s opened up. Stelmach added, “just because there’s public inquiry doesn’t (automatically) mean non-disclosure documents are opened.”

Zwozdesky, however, would not relent when opponents then pushed him to agree to open up non-disclosure agreements on the government’s behalf.

“That’s between those two (legal) parties,” said Zwozdesky, referring to doctors and health bureaucrats.

“They have to agree. I’m not going to step in and tell people how to interpret the law, or to break the law, heaven forbid.”

“They are you!” Liberal Laurie Blakeman shouted at him across the aisle. “Smarten up!”

Alberta opposition NDP Leader Brian Mason moved for an emergency debate on the scandal, but that was rejected by Speaker Ken Kowalski on the grounds a similar emergency debate has already been held in this session.

Mason told reporters that despite the political standoff, they will continue to chip away.

“This really gets to the heart of how they (the government) have managed our health-care system. How they’ve covered up, and hidden some of the problems they’ve created.

“That’s why they don’t want (the inquiry), and that’s why it simply must go ahead.”