10/15/2012 01:54 EDT | Updated 12/15/2012 05:12 EST

Alberta Health Inquiry, Queue Jumping Won't Be A Witch Hunt Says Inquiry Head

doctor explaining diagnosis to her female patient

EDMONTON - A retired judge promised Monday that his inquiry into health-care queue jumping in Alberta will be wide-ranging, but it won't be a witch hunt.

"There have been numerous complaints aired in the press and elsewhere to the effect that this inquiry's mandate is too narrow. That is not for me to comment on," John Vertes told a panel hearing in Court of Queen's Bench.

"Let me simply say I take the premier (Alison Redford) at her word when she was quoted as saying that this inquiry can follow the evidence wherever it leads."

But Vertes, who retired last year as senior judge on the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories, also pointed out that even though his inquiry is independent and can compel witnesses to testify, it is not a court of law.

"I cannot find individual fault."

The judge must determine if some Albertans are using fear or favour to allow themselves or others to leapfrog to the top of waiting lists for medical procedures and, if so, to recommend what can be done to stop it.

Vertes heard applications Monday from parties that want to take an active part in the inquiry as interveners. The hearings are to run for two weeks in Edmonton starting Dec. 2 and then for two weeks in Calgary in January.

A report must be submitted to Speaker Gene Zwozdesky no later than April 30.

Vertes agreed to requests from the Alberta Medical Association, representing the province's 11,000 physicians and students, Alberta Health Services and the Alberta government to be interveners.

The status can include the right to cross-examine witnesses, present evidence and make recommendations. Vertes told the groups he will spell out their exact rights and responsibilities in the coming days.

The Consumers Association of Canada also asked for intervener status. Vertes held off making a decision.

He said he will consider applications for some of the inquiry to be behind closed doors when necessary, but added he is "committed to an open and transparent process."

Redford ordered the inquiry in February after a report by the Alberta Health Quality Council on problems with the province's $16-billion health-care system.

That council found wait times for emergency care were intolerably long. It also said officials and politicians played a major role in the crisis by mismanaging bed allocations and sowed confusion by collapsing health regions into one superboard in 2008.

While no one died as a result of the bungling, there was a lot of needless suffering, the report said.

It also heard from many doctors who said that when they complained about poor patient care, their bosses ignored them, cut their hospital privileges and, in some instances, got them fired.

Redford said that in light of the report, the inquiry needed to look into the bullying allegations. But she was roundly criticized days later when the terms of reference were released and she ordered the inquiry to look only at queue jumping.

The premier said she was acting on the advice of the Health Quality Council, which said the bullying of doctors had been fully investigated and future money would be better spent fixing the problem.

Redford told a radio show at the time that if the inquiry uncovered information of doctor bullying while it looked into the question of queue jumping, it could go anywhere it wanted.

"If (queue-jumping) has happened — and that's the point of the inquiry — we're probably going to find as a result of that, there were connections to doctor intimidation," she said.

Opposition critics suggested the premier narrowed the scope to avoid the inquiry directly exploring allegations of bullying, meddling and misbehaviour by her senior politicians.

The Health Quality Council, which set up the inquiry, said that while Vertes must focus on the present, he is not blocked from looking at the past.

"It is anticipated that the question of whether improper preferential access to publicly funded health services is occurring will necessitate an examination of whether and under what circumstances such access occurred in the past," said the council in a news release.

Vertes said his team is still gathering facts and encouraged people with information on queue jumping to come forward — in confidence if they so desire.