EDMONTON - Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman says he was the go-to guy to get answers on health-care problems when he was part of the government, but he was never a "fix-it" man to help VIPs jump waiting lists.
"If that's the allegation, it's absolutely false," Sherman said Wednesday about comments made by the former head of Alberta Health Services.
Sherman, who at one time was associate health minister for the governing Tories, was asked whether he thought Stephen Duckett's remarks were payback for Sherman once publicly saying Duckett ran "knucklehead" health care.
"I'm not going to get into that," said Sherman, who added he stands by his 2010 comments that Duckett ran a dysfunctional system by closing long-term care beds, reducing nursing ranks and demoralizing front-line workers by cancelling perks such as free Christmas dinners for staff working over the holidays.
"There were many knucklehead decisions made by government and AHS."
Duckett was called as a witness earlier this week by retired justice John Vertes, who is heading an inquiry into allegations of health-care queue-jumping in Alberta. The hearing was called by Premier Alison Redford to respond to concerns about long waits and preferential treatment.
Sherman, who is also an emergency room doctor, is slated to testify next week.
His ties to the Tory government and eventually to Duckett date back to 2008, when he was elected as a member of the governing Progressive Conservatives under former premier Ed Stelmach. Sherman was immediately made the associate health minister.
A report by the Health Quality Council has said those years were fraught with organizational confusion bordering on chaos as health nine regions were amalgamated into one superboard called Alberta Health Services, or AHS.
AHS ran day-to-day operations under the auspices of the health minister. Duckett was picked as its first CEO and came on board in the spring of 2009.
On Tuesday, he told the inquiry that he soon learned he had inherited a culture of back-channel problem-solving. He said members of the legislature and other prominent people went through the CEOs in some of the larger health regions to fix problems up to and including getting well-connected people to the front of long waiting lists.
Duckett said he immediately put a stop to it. The AHS board supported him, he said, but he added that several members of the legislature were critical and wanted the so-called "fix-it" people reinstated.
"A number of MLAs (complained), but amongst others that I recall was Raj Sherman,'' said Duckett, who spoke via video-link from his home in Australia.
He was pressed for other names, but said he could only remember Sherman's.
The Liberal leader said he's not surprised that Duckett remembered him because Sherman was the associate health minister at the time as well as a doctor and a person people could turn to for answers when they were stonewalled by bureaucrats.
"The heads of every organization would phone me, patients from all across the province would email my office, (and) every MLA was lost as to what was happening in their area," said Sherman.
"There was an absolute need for someone to help Albertans navigate the system when communication (got) dropped, when (someone's) surgery (got) cancelled for the third time."
But Sherman said that's where the help ended.
"(Helping obtain) preferential access? Never."
Both Sherman and Duckett saw their career took a sharp turn in November 2010 — a tumultuous month for the government.
Doctors said patients were waiting 20 hours or more in emergency rooms. Many were suffering. Some dialled 911 for help while they sat in emergency wards.
The heat was on Stelmach to relieve the pressure, but Sherman instead heaped on more coals when one of his emails was leaked to the media.
In the email, Sherman criticized Stelmach for breaking his promise to fix health care and chastised AHS for failing to solve immediate problems in emergency care.
On Nov. 17, Sherman was called on the carpet by Stelmach and they patched things up. The premier said Sherman would stay in caucus. Sherman said he realized problems had less to do with government policy than with "knucklehead" decisions by Duckett's regime.
Peace was short lived.
Two days later, Sherman criticized former health minister Ron Liepert for allowing the emergency room crisis to worsen. He dismissed the work of then-AHS chairman Ken Hughes as "amateur hour." Hughes would later win a seat in the legislature and is now Redford's energy minister.
Sherman ended up getting booted from the PC caucus.
Around the same time, Duckett had a meltdown of his own.
Emerging from a tense meeting about how to reduce wait times, Duckett refused to stop and speak to reporters. He said he was too busy to talk because he was eating his oatmeal-raisin cookie.
TV footage of Duckett walking away and nibbling on his cookie went viral. Five days later, the AHS board, with the government's blessing, said Duckett had compromised his ability to lead and the two sides parted ways.
Duckett, when he testified Tuesday, had a box of cookies on the desk behind him.
Sherman eventually joined the Liberals and won the party leadership last year.
He has made patient rights and health reform the cornerstone of party policy.
In the current fall session he has frequently asked questions on health issues in the legislature. He has urged Redford to call a broader inquiry into allegations that doctors have lost hospital privileges or been forced out for complaining publicly about poor patient care.