01/09/2013 02:56 EST | Updated 03/11/2013 05:12 EDT

Aide to ex-premier Klein sought extra care for own ill child, inquiry hears

CALGARY - A health supervisor says she used to receive calls from top brass to check on VIP patients and was once asked to help out a member of former premier Ralph Klein's inner circle.

Janice Stewart told Alberta's queue-jumping inquiry Wednesday that she refused to help the Klein aide on medical grounds and balked at the VIP-care directives for ethical reasons.

"If I didn't know the (VIP patient) personally, I really didn't feel it appropriate (to go visit them). And I firmly believe that people's health concerns are a private matter," Stewart testified.

Stewart is the executive director of surgery at the Rockyview Hospital in Calgary.

A decade ago, she was director of home-care services for the now-disbanded Calgary health region. Her job included deciding whether some ill children on ventilators should be cared for around the clock at their homes by a nurse — based on a belief that patients recuperate faster in familiar surroundings.

Stewart said that at the time a member of then-premier Klein's office approached the head of the health region, Jack Davis, to expedite such care for his ill child.

"It was as a result of his relationship with Ralph Klein that I understood he approached Jack Davis personally and asked if he could do something to try and get this to happen," said Stewart.

The child's condition in the intensive care ward was too unsafe for home care, she said, so she refused to authorize it. Davis did not push her to change her mind, she testified. She said she couldn't remember the name of the Klein aide.

Stewart said it was one example of requested favouritism that occurred in the Calgary region. That region and eight others were merged in 2008 into the current Alberta Health Services superboard.

She testified that when she ran the cardiac unit at the Foothills Hospital, starting in 2005, she would often get calls from a regional vice-president alerting her to prominent patients.

"It was a fairly common practice at that time," she testified.

"There was no policy around it. There were no memos. There was nothing in writing. It was usually just a phone call to say, 'Just wanted to give you a heads-up (that) so-and-so has been admitted to one of your units.'"

Stewart said she remembered the names of the VIPs, but commission head John Vertes didn't direct her to divulge them. He said it wasn't relevant to her testimony.

She said there was no direction to provide preferential care.

"It was just (supposed to be) a courtesy call to say 'hello' and 'How were things going?'"

But she said while no direction was given to provide preferential care, she suggested to Vertes that her simply going to visit the patient would allow for that.

"What if they (the VIP patient) said (to you), 'I've got this complaint. I've got that complaint. I want this. I want that.' What would you do?" Vertes asked her.

"If we had any complaints we would have dealt with those as they came up," said Stewart.

"I would have done the same if I had gone to visit one of these (VIP) patients."

She said the phone calls stopped when the region was folded into the superboard.

The inquiry, now into its third week of testimony, has already heard evidence of a similar unofficial "say hi" VIP policy in the one-time Capital Health Region in Edmonton.

Staffers have said that around 2007-08 they received directives from then-region CEO Sheila Weatherill's office to meet with VIP patients, track their treatment and report back to Weatherill.

Brigitte McDonough, the former head of critical care at the University of Alberta Hospital, testified last month that it irritated her and front-line staff to have to do such checks.

She said she was never asked to do anything more than "say hi" or give "an extra smile."

McDonough said she did it without question because that was what Weatherill wanted.

"When Sheila wanted something, you jumped," said McDonough.

Weatherill's testimony on Monday, however, suggested that any jumping was strictly optional.

Weatherill told the inquiry she would pass on word of prominent patients to her senior staff without instructions on what they should do with the information.

She said her executives were free to pass on the information or ignore it altogether. And there was no expectation that they would get back to her to report what had been done, she said.

— By Dean Bennett in Edmonton