06/07/2011 07:12 EDT | Updated 08/07/2011 05:12 EDT

Health Care Queue Jumping Allegations Rock Alberta Tories; Government Accused Of Letting Friends Bypass Wait Lists

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THE CANADIAN PRESS -- EDMONTON — Alberta's health minister dismissed allegations Monday that his caucus colleagues have let friends and cronies jump the queue to get faster surgery.

Gene Zwozdesky said he has no knowledge that this happened or is happening, and said if anyone has proof, they should bring it to health authorities.

"I have not seen any evidence of any queue jumping," said Zwozdesky. "If there is proof to (the allegations), they should be brought forward to the Health Quality Council."

Zwozdesky was responding to allegations made in a recent speech by Stephen Duckett, the former head of Alberta Health Services.

Duckett, who left his post under a cloud last November, told an audience at the University of Toronto that when he took the job in 2009 he inherited a system riven by turf battles, money woes, and political interference.

He said he immediately shut down a back-channel system that allowed some government legislature members to let favoured friends jump the waiting list queue and get faster surgery or other care.

"I'm told some of predecessor CEO's had designated go-to guys for discreet waiting lists adjustments on request from MLAs — a practice I discontinued," said Duckett in his May 5 speech.

Duckett, who now teaches with the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, declined to be interviewed Monday. In an email exchange, he said he would let his public comments speak for themselves.

The provincial government has been under heavy criticism from opponents since last fall over health care.

They have demanded a full public inquiry, with subpoena powers, to get to the root of problems with long wait lists and accusations that doctors and nurses who complain about poor patient care are reprimanded, sanctioned or threatened.

Zwozdesky has asked the Health Quality Council, an arm's-length investigative body, to look into the waiting list problems, but critics say the council doesn't have the quasi-judicial clout needed to get to the core of issues like physician intimidation.

Opposition NDP leader Brian Mason said Duckett's accusations are galling, especially considering that one of Mason's constituents has twice had surgery delayed on a cancerous lung.

"This really casts a very dark shadow over the integrity of our health-care system, and I think it's high time we have a public inquiry to get to the bottom of this and other issues," said Mason.

Opposition Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann said there's no doubt there's a "culture of entitlement" among the Conservatives after 40 consecutive years in power.

"The question is has it reached the point where there are favours being given to friends and supporters over those that are in most urgent need of a particular service? And that's the part that can only be uncovered in a public inquiry," said Swann.

Duckett left his post last November at the height of the political furor over the waiting lists. At that time, Raj Sherman, the parliamentary assistant in the portfolio, was turfed from caucus for criticizing his own government on the issue. Sherman now sits in opposition.

Duckett left after he dodged reporters following a meeting in Edmonton. He brusquely told them he wouldn't comment because he was eating a cookie. The comments, and the footage of Duckett being followed down the street by reporters, went viral on YouTube, and the cookie became a symbol of government indifference to public suffering.

In his Toronto speech, Duckett said he couldn't talk that day.

"I'd been instructed by the premier's office not to make any comments at all as the issue running in the media was entirely political," he said.

Even before the cookie meltdown, he said it was a challenge reforming a system that was among Canada's leaders a decade earlier but now delivers some of the poorest care for the highest price.

The government, he said, had spread itself too thinly with too many care centres in remote rural locations, which coincide with the Tories' political power base.

There were turf battles between the two major cities of Edmonton and Calgary, with each demanding the same facilities as the other.

And while he worked for the Health Department, he said the government didn't always have his back, especially when he was given $1 billion less to work with in his budget and was forced to cut.

"The fact the budget within which we had to work was set by the provincial government was de-emphasized in the media," he said.

"The government budget spin did not acknowledge the repositioning required to meet budget targets. I had to shoulder all of the opprobrium for the budget repositioning personally.

"This was probably the worst time I've ever had in my career."

Danielle Smith, leader of the opposition Wildrose Alliance, said the issue goes beyond political culture, and that for meaningful change to occur, the health system itself must be overhauled.

"When people have to wait two or three years for treatment, they begin to get desperate," said Smith.

"The way you actually solve the problem of queue-jumping is you eliminate the queues.

"And you eliminate queues by looking to European evidence, from countries around the world that have managed to create health-care systems that actually work."

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press