CALGARY - The former head of Edmonton's health region admitted she gave a heads-up to staff on incoming VIP patients — but didn't expect those patients would get favourable treatment.
"I'm a (former) nurse myself," Sheila Weatherill told the Alberta Health Services Preferential Access Inquiry on Monday.
"I have a lot of confidence in (staffers') understanding that any sort of extra care or service is dependent on medical need."
That sparked a sharp exchange between Weatherill and commission counsel Michele Hollins.
"If the nursing staff and the frontline staff — everyone — agrees that we have every confidence that they are going to treat patients according to their medical need, that they're not going to provide particular service to a prominent person, correct?" said Hollins.
"Correct," said Weatherill.
"Then what is the point of telling them, 'Here's this prominent person that's coming into your facility'? If you expect patients to be treated equally, why didn't your office treat them equally?" asked Hollins.
Weatherill paused before answering.
"I feel there is a value in passing on information to the senior people so that they would have an awareness that these people had become part of the health system," she said.
"Just like the thousand of pieces of information they have about what's happening in their facility, it's another factor."
Earlier witnesses have testified that the health region under Weatherill had a culture of VIP care, with front-line staff told to watch over prominent patients.
Brigitte McDonough, the former executive in charge of critical care at the University Hospital in Edmonton, said Weatherill's executives would inform doctors and nurses of prominent patients in their care.
McDonough, testifying last month, said the care was never to be more than to "say hi" or give an "extra smile" to a patient, but said in one instance she ordered a prominent person be moved up in line in the emergency department after a complaint to Weatherill's office.
"It was well known that when Sheila wanted something, you jumped," said McDonough.
Weatherill, however, told Hollins she infrequently made the calls to two of her senior executives to inform them of prominent patients, but left it at that.
Weatherill said the executives were free to pass Weatherill's message on to the hospital in question or to ignore it. No followup was expected, she added.
"My intention is just to make (the executive) aware that that individual is somewhere in our system," Weatherill testified.
"They're very experienced senior people. They would understand what follow up would be appropriate."
She said the calls were usually concerning the security and privacy of the prominent people, but she agreed with Hollins that procedures were already in place to guarantee the privacy of all patients anyway.
Weatherill left her post as head of the Capital Health region when it and the eight other regions were combined into the Alberta Health Services superboard in 2008.
Weatherill sat on the board of directors for the superboard until last year. She stepped down 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.
The inquiry, chaired by retired judge John Vertes, was called by Premier Alison Redford a year ago to address concerns highlighted by former Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, who suggested that VIPs and other prominent people were getting faster or better health-care treatment.
The inquiry began a month ago with the former CEO testifying that while he sent out a memo calling for a stop to queue-jumping in 2009, he had no first-hand knowledge it was occurring.
Other officials have echoed those comments.
Front-line staff have referred to one-off cases of preferential treatment, but have offered nothing suggesting a policy of playing favourites.
Earlier Monday, Vivian Stevenson, the lawyer for the Alberta government, and Weatherill's lawyer Mona Duckett told Vertes they believe the playing field is tilted against their clients.
They said the inquiry is straying from its mandate to find current cases of queue-jumping and drifting into a fishing expedition of random past malfeasance.
Mona Duckett suggested some time parameters are needed to keep the inquiry on track.
Vertes, however, replied that past practice can be relevant to determine if a problem is still ongoing. He also said the nature of the inquiry requires a wide latitude.
"It's difficult for me to set parameters in advance on specific aspects of testimony because I don't know what the evidence is going to be," said Vertes.
"This is a rolling process."
— By Dean Bennett in Edmonton