04/16/2013 12:34 EDT | Updated 06/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Michele Lahey Mayo Clinic Expenses: Alberta Health Executive Billed Taxpayers For Second Opinion


EDMONTON - Calling the situation "offensive," Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne said Tuesday there is no way to recoup more than $7,000 in public funds spent in 2007 to send a former health executive to a private U.S. centre for cancer followup care.

"There is not a legal way, I am advised, in order to recover the funds," Horne told the house Tuesday during question period.

"As offensive as it is, what Albertans again can take comfort in is this premier and this government have taken steps to make sure that this situation cannot occur today."

Horne made the comments after former health executive Michele Lahey confirmed in an email to The Canadian Press she was reimbursed for her trip in January 2007 to Minnesota's prestigious Mayo Clinic for a second opinion that recent treatments to eradicate cancer had been successful.

“Even though I thought I was cured, my boss subsequently told me to get a second opinion at the Mayo Clinic and paid for one consultation to make sure I was clear," said Lahey in the email.

"Of course, I have always been open about this and have no problem with anyone knowing the costs or the issues.”

Patients in Alberta who wish to have their out-of-country medical costs covered must make their case, based on need, to a board.

Lahey is now CEO of the private Bupa Cromwell Hospital in London, England.

In 2007, she worked at the time for Edmonton's old Capital Health Region. All the regions were collapsed in 2008 into the current Alberta Health Services, or AHS, superboard.

Horne said Tuesday that a repeat of the Lahey affair is impossible under current supervision and reporting rules for AHS executive spending.

"This situation could not happen and is not happening in Alberta today," said Horne.

However, Opposition Wildrose leader Danielle Smith continued to push for the government to release all executive spending documents from the final years of the Capital Health Region to make sure those who may have abused the public trust then are not still abusing it now.

"A lot of those folks were around in 2007, so it is still relevant today," Smith told the legislature.

AHS spokesman Kerry Williamson, in an email, echoed Horne's remarks.

"AHS is not responsible for decisions of the former health regions," said Williamson.

"The new (AHS) policy was created to tighten limits and guidelines on appropriate expenses and is among the most comprehensive in the country."

The issue came to light Monday when the Wildrose revealed that Lahey was reimbursed $7,225 for the two-night trip in January 2007. At the time Lahey was the vice-president and chief operating officer of Capital Health.

Among the expenses picked up by taxpayers were Lahey's hotel expenses at the Marriott. They were also charged for meals, Perrier water, an in-room movie, key lime pie, creme brule, a grand latte and a caramel macchiato.

Other spending receipts on Lahey in 2005 and 2006 released by the Wildrose Tuesday reveal thousands of dollars in hosting expenses at high-end restaurants and retreats. There are receipts for wine, gift baskets and charitable donations, and for a $100 candlestick along with multiple store receipts for cheese: Oka, goat, Dutch gouda, Camembert and three-year-old cheddar.

Some of the hosting costs were tied to events with Allaudin Merali, who was the chief financial officer of Capital Health at the time.

Merali later became the chief financial officer of AHS, but resigned last August after it was revealed that while at Capital Health he charged taxpayers almost $370,000 for pricey restaurant meals, to fix his Mercedes Benz and to hire a butler.

Merali said he was just doing his job, that he funded some of the hosting costs out of his own pocket and that, if anything, he didn't charge enough.

Both Merali's and Lahey's expenses were approved by then Capital Health CEO Sheila Weatherill.

Weatherill resigned from the board of AHS soon after Merali resigned last year. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said the time had come for a full forensic accounting of Capital Health, adding that the Lahey case is not only one of misused funds but also queue-jumping.

"How much more waste was there, and how many more people had sanctioned preferential access (to care)?" Sherman said to reporters.

NDP Leader Brian Mason said the issue is more than a financial one.

"It's clear that it's not only a violation of the policies of Alberta Health, but also of the Canada Health Act, and it may involve a contravention of the Criminal Code."

Mason said he was referring to the Criminal Code sections referring to officials abusing their position for personal gain or gain to those close to them.

Spending issues have continue to plague health officials even after the AHS was created.

In February, auditor general Merwan Saher reported that an audit of AHS conducted over 17 months ending last August found that $100 million was spent on travel, hosting, moving and other purchasing.

Some of the questionable spending, he said, included health bureaucrats taking $1,200 short-hop flights from Edmonton to Calgary, and staff shelling out up to $300 at a time to shuttle patients around in taxis.

There was one case of an employee being reimbursed to fly to a meeting in his or her own plane, he said.

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