EDMONTON — In a day of emotional testimony at an inquiry into health-care queue-jumping, Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said he has written prescriptions, given advice and diagnosed politicians who dropped by his legislature office.
“Did it ever occur to you, Dr. Sherman, that that might be seen as a form of queue-jumping itself?” inquiry lawyer Michele Hollins asked.
“Not at all,” he replied. “I wasn’t on duty.”
An emergency room doctor by trade, Sherman has been a central defender of Alberta’s health care.
He has also been one of the politicians who has pressed the hardest for the inquiry, called by Premier Alison Redford to determine if VIPs, politicians or other prominent people get better or faster care.
Sherman said he looked at minor rashes, eczema and other various ailments in his office. He said he would also write prescriptions and start patient charts.
“The minority of the time they were instances where it was just a simple prescription refill on a very minor issue,” he testified.
“They (my colleagues) were (busy) chairing committee meetings and, yes, on those very minor issues I would give treatment to them.”
“Did you charge for any of these consultations?” asked Hollins.
“No, not at all,” he replied.
Hollins asked him what would happen if someone walked in off the street to his legislature office looking for medical help.
“If I show up with eczema, are you going to write me a prescription or are you going to send me to my family doctor?” asked Hollins.
“Part of this, m’am, is professional courtesy,” he replied.
Sherman became emotional as he pressed to have commissioner John Vertes broaden the inquiry into looking at reports of long waiting lists and patients dying waiting for care.
After several exchanges, Vertes urged Sherman to keep his testimony direct and on point.
“I want you to carry the burden that I’ve been carrying for years, that doctors have been carrying for years,” Sherman countered, his voice breaking.
“I have evidence, names of these people that have been documented. They died waiting for care. This is tantamount to criminal neglect. Is this not something that you would be interested in looking at?”
Hollins then interjected, telling the inquiry: “It is not for a lack of care, but the terms of the inquiry are set.
“While I appreciate that Dr. Sherman has passions that lay outside the terms of reference, it’s simply not appropriate for him to use this as an avenue for that.”
The questioning of Sherman was in sharp contrast to the treatment of witnesses to date at the inquiry.
Earlier Thursday, witnesses referred to contemporaneous written reports and personal notes on interactions with officials who were urging special attention for VIP patients. The inquiry lawyers did not request those documents be examined or entered as exhibits.
But in Sherman’s case, Hollins went back well over a year to find TV and web reports of Sherman speaking about his first-hand knowledge of queue-jumping in the system and a reference to him treating MLA colleagues in his office.
Sherman has told the inquiry he in fact didn’t have first-hand knowledge of queue-jumping, but had heard about it in hallway chatter and in discussions with medical colleagues.
So why, Hollins asked him, would you tell reporters you had seen queue-jumping first-hand but in reality had only heard about it second-hand?
“Perhaps it was the conversation (about queue-jumping) I saw first-hand,” he said.
Sherman has had a rocky relationship with Redford’s governing Progressive Conservatives.
He was elected as a PC member in the 2008 election and immediately named associate minister of health. But by November 2010 he was kicked out of caucus for publicly criticizing health policy and long waits for care.
He then joined the opposition Liberals and won a race in 2011 to become party leader.
He has made health the cornerstone of his policy platform and has drawn as an example of long waits the plight of his now deceased father.
In February 2008, Sherman wrote an email complaining how his father had to wait five hours in the emergency ward to be seen for chest pains.
Hollins pointed out that in the email that Sherman, who was running for office at the time, was grateful someone had recognized his father in the waiting room and moved him up in the queue for care.
She quoted from Sherman’s email: “Someone unknown called and asked him to be moved up in the queue in front of other patients. Had this not happened he likely would not have survived.”
“How do you know that someone requested your father be moved up in the queue that day?” she asked.
“It was a comment I heard at the time,” said Sherman.
Outside the inquiry, Sherman said he didn’t mind the hard questions.
But he said he wondered why earlier witnesses such as former Alberta Health Services boss Stephen Duckett — who wrote the memo about queue jumping that ultimately launched the inquiry — didn’t face similar grilling.
“That (the memo) is what started all this. Nobody asked them tough questions,” said Sherman.
“My question is: where were the tough questions?”
Earlier Thursday, the inquiry was told that the old Capital Health Region in Edmonton ran a culture of VIP care, with prominent patients being tracked and monitored and, in one case, receiving preferential care.
Brigette McDonough testified that as the executive in charge of critical care at the University of Alberta Hospital she would be directed by the office of region CEO Sheila Weatherill to inform doctors and nurses when prominent patients were in their midst.
She said frontline staff weren’t told to do anything more than to “say hi” or give an “extra smile” to those patients.
She said staff did not appreciate the heads-up and in 2007 McDonough said she had to order a triage nurse to give expedited care to an emergency room patient after the patient’s spouse complained to Weatherill’s office.
McDonough said she didn’t enjoy passing the word on about VIPs, but did what she was told.
“It was well known that when Sheila wanted something, you jumped,” said McDonough.
Commission officials say they are considering calling Weatherill as a witness next month when the inquiry resumes hearings in Calgary.
Weatherill stepped down from the board of Alberta Health Services earlier this year after documents revealed she allowed former executive Allaudin Merali to bill taxpayers for extravagant meals, to fix his Mercedes-Benz and to hire a butler.