EDMONTON — An inquiry has found that queue-jumping has occurred in Alberta’s health-care system and an environment exists in which it could happen again.
Justice John Vertes says while claims that queue-jumping was widespread and politicians were moving people to the front of the line ended up being untrue, there were instances where people got faster care. He said policies need to be tightened to stop that.
“The claim that it was not uncommon for senior executives to receive requests for expedited care proved to be unfounded,” Vertes wrote in his final report, released Wednesday.
“However … the inquiry did in fact learn of incidents of improper preferential access and also identified several systemic issues that could foster an environment conducive to such improper access.”
Vertes made a total of 12 recommendations to help prevent abuses in the province’s $16-billion health-care system.
He suggested that the definition of queue-jumping and prohibitions against it be strengthened. He said it should be mandatory to report instances when patients are being pushed to the front of the line, and he added that whistleblowers should be protected.
Vertes also said doctors should never give priority under the guise of “professional courtesy” to other medical professionals unless there is an emergency or compelling reason.
The inquiry was called by Premier Alison Redford in response to a report by the Alberta Health Quality Council which found a variety of problems involving patient wait times and administrative confusion.
There was also controversy around comments made by the former head of Alberta Health Services, Stephen Duckett, who claimed preferential access to care was a common practice when he took over the job and that politicians had fixers who could get valued constituents faster treatment.
Vertes, a retired member of the Northwest Territories Supreme Court, heard testimony from Duckett as well as from other prominent Albertans, including Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, who is an emergency room doctor, and Sheila Weatherill, former head of Edmonton’s Capital Health Region.
The inquiry found little evidence of the alleged widespread abuse. It did, however, find problems concerning the Forzani and MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre, a public facility on the University of Calgary campus.
Witnesses testified that the centre gave preferential treatment to patients from the Helios Wellness Centre, a private clinic, also on university grounds, which charges members $10,000 a year for health services. Testimony suggested that between 2008 and 2012, Helios patients were treated within weeks or months — well ahead of the three-year wait other patients endured.
Some believed the rapid treatment was a reward for donors to the university. The inquiry heard that Helios donated $200,000 or more annually to fund medical scholarships and other activities at the University of Calgary.
Staff who worked at the public screening clinic testified that the booking system was in such disarray that referrals from Helios were being slotted in randomly.
Vertes addressed that issue by recommending that a standardized referral and booking system be developed.
In a statement, Health Minister Fred Horne accepted Vertes’s recommendations.
“We will now engage in meaningful discussions with Alberta Health Services and the appropriate colleges on how we will implement these enhancements,” he said, noting the most salacious allegations before Vertes ended up being unfounded.
“He … concluded there was no evidence to prove that any MLA had used influence or other means to enhance his or her own care or that of family or friends, and that MLA advocacy was an appropriate part of MLAs’ duties.
“Public confidence in Alberta’s health system is critical. The checks and balances Justice Vertes has recommended in his report will reassure Albertans that preferential access is not occurring so they can have the utmost confidence in their health system.