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Alberta health minister parries former CEO: Does anyone seriously believe this is 'just another' allegation?

Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky

When the former chief executive officer of a publicly financed, 90,000-employee, multi-billion-dollar, province-wide, health care enterprise makes an allegation that Conservative MLAs were helping their friends and neighbours jump the queue for treatment, it can't just be brushed off as the ramblings of some conspiracy nut.

That's what Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky tried to do yesterday after the media got wind of a speech in which former Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett told a group of physicians in Toronto that until he came along from Australia, Alberta MLAs used their privileged position to enable their pals and petitioners to jump to the front of the lineup.

Zwozdesky repeated the government's mantra that there will be no public inquiry into the operations of Alberta's troubled health care system, which he's been chanting like a Hare Krishna incense salesman since allegations surfaced earlier this year that physicians who had spoken up for their patients had been bullied into silence by health region executives.

Now he's trying to blow off the former $575,000-a-year president and CEO of the massive health care bureaucracy that replaced those regions as the author of one of those half-baked he-said-she-said stories.

Sorry, Gene, but that dog don't hunt.

When the former chief executive of an organization this important makes allegations this explosive, you don't get to slough them off as if they were spoken by some fruitcake. Because of his former position, Duckett has to be listened to.

And, c'mon, people, does anyone out there believe for one second that this is, in Zwozdesky's words, "just another of those allegations that probably goes nowhere"?

No, it's pretty safe to conclude that these allegations lead somewhere, possibly a place the Progressive Conservative government of Alberta, sundry former health region executives and perhaps even a number of well-placed people who jumped the line and got treatment while others waited would prefer not to go. Indeed, there may be enough of them to make up an ice-hockey team!

Because it's a given that if there's anything to Duckett's statement, for every person who was helped to the front of the line, several people got bumped back. And if that happened, it's pretty likely that someone died as a result, isn't it?

And by the sound of it, this situation reaches back pretty far in time -- far enough, possibly, to damage the hopes of some prominent candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party, now that Premier Ed Stelmach has announced that he's stepping down and it's time for the 40-year Tory dynasty to reinvent itself as something new in order to hang onto power.

So whom do you believe? A politician desperate to save his worn-out government, or a former chief executive, aggrieved at the same government for the way it treated him, who had enough time in office to find out where a lot of the bodies are buried?

Duckett is many things, but he is no fool. Do you think he just issued a memorandum back in June 2009 saying AHS had to avoid expedited care for prominent and well-connected people because he felt like it?

Do you think he just made it up when he wrote in that memo that "it is not uncommon for executive members or other leaders of health care organizations to receive requests to provide preferential or expedited care for 'prominent' individuals or the family and acquaintances of 'prominent' people"?

No, Duckett wrote those words in 2009 for a reason and the existence of that piece of paper -- and the fact it so conveniently turned up in the hands of the Edmonton Journal the same day as the media reported the University of Toronto speech -- is a hell of a lot more persuasive than Zwozdesky's lame effort to bob and weave around the issue.

The government's political calculus up to today, obviously, has been that the risks of holding an honest and independent inquiry are too severe for the government.

Duckett's dramatic entry into this situation -- no matter what motivated him to do so -- changes this, whether Zwozdesky, Stelmach and all the members of the Progressive Conservative Party in Alberta like it or not. There are now also real political consequences for this government if they do not hold an inquiry.

The Alberta Conservatives are the Titanic. Duckett is the iceberg. That bump you just heard may turn out to be more serious than anyone imagined at first!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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