Powerful people jumped health care queues in Alberta thanks to MLAs: CEO

Steve Mertl
Canada Politics
December 5, 2012

It's axiomatic that politicians and governments grow more comfortable and protective of their perks the longer they are in power.

Who can forget former federal Liberal cabinet minister David Dingwall, who while responding to allegations before a Commons committee of excessive expense claims and severance pay while head of the Royal Canadian Mint, uttered the immortal phrase: "I am entitled to my entitlements."

The Progressive Conservatives have been governing Alberta since 1971, so its prerogatives are well entrenched. Two recent scandals reveal just how much.

A public inquiry is turning up evidence that Alberta MLAs regularly interfered with the public health system to move powerful people to the front of the queue for treatment, the Globe and Mail reported.

Stephen Duckett, an Australian economist hired to run the Alberta Health Services then-new superboard three years ago, testified Tuesday he was surprised to discover that so-called "Mr. Fix-its" were being used to get people preferential access.

Duckett told the quasi-judicial Health Quality Council of Alberta that while he ended the practice, he didn't delve further into it.

"I wasn't particularly interested in witch hunts," he told the inquiry. "As long as everybody's in the same boat, then it's in the interest of everybody — the elite and the whole population — to ensure the system is a good one."

Duckett's characterization of what went on was challenged by David Megran, another health-services executive, who said he knew of no examples and was following orders when he drafted a non-queue-jumping memo for Duckett, the Globe reported. But Duckett claimed it was Megran who initially raised the issue.

The subsequent memo said "preferential or expedited care for 'prominent' individuals" wasn't uncommon, and it ordered all requests sent to Duckett. None ever were, he said, according to the Globe.

Duckett left his job as CEO of the health superboard in 2010 after just one year by mutual agreement with the government, ostensibly for refusing to a answer questions from reporters following a meeting of the board about the crisis state of hospital emergency rooms.

"I'm eating my cookie," he said, waving an oatmeal-and-raisin biscuit at reporters in an exchange posted on YouTube.

The Globe reported at the time that the government felt the uproar following the incident had destroyed Duckett's public credibility.

Duckett, who testified at the inquiry via video link from Australia with a box of cookies beside him, said that he found the Alberta health-care system "dysfunctional," CTV News reported.

[Related: Alberta premier's sister used health region money to support Tories]

Meanwhile, the Alberta Conservatives have succeeded in avoiding reforms to the province's campaign finance rules after revelations billionaire Daryl Katz had written a single $430,000 cheque to the party's spring re-election campaign, the Globe reported. The money amounted to more than a quarter of the party's election fundraising.

Receipts then were issued by the party for Katz, his wife and several colleagues and companies.

Regulations cap individual donations to $30,000 but some interpret the rule as allowing big donors to write one cheque that can later be split into smaller donations and attributed to others. It's been dubbed the "Katz loophole," the Globe said.

The Opposition Wildrose party, which was expected until almost voting day to topple the four-decade Tory dynasty under new leader Alison Redford, proposed changes to the campaign-finance law barring donations "on behalf of another contributor."

But the Conservative majority defeated the amendment Tuesday evening. People have the right to write one big cheque on behalf of several others, Government House Leader Dave Hancock told the legislature.

"People organize their lives in various different ways, it's not up to us to try and make their lives difficult," he said. "At the end of the day, it's about openness — who made the contribution and not who wrote the cheque."

The Opposition also lost another battle this week when the Speaker ruled Redford had not mislead the legislature about her involvement, as Alberta justice minister in 2010, in awarding a huge contract to a Calgary law firm that included her ex-husband.

After weathering a demand that Redford be sanctioned, the government said Tuesday it would not release details about the contract that hired the firm to sue tobacco companies over smoking-related health-care costs, The Canadian Press reported.

(CBC photo of Stephen Duckett)