National Post – November 22, 2010
Alberta’s cookie craver munches while health care crumbles
By Kevin Libin
The sly comparison to Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal cake quip has probably been made somewhere; watching the bizarre video, which went viral over the weekend, of Alberta’s health czar insisting his enjoyment of a cookie take precedence over questions about an erupting emergency room crisis makes the parallel too tempting not to draw.
Dial it up on YouTube and watch the CTV video of reporters following Alberta Health Services (AHS) president and CEO Stephen Duckett through hallways, down stairways, crossing streets. All the while he maintains he will not answer questions because, he exclaims, “I’m interested in eating my cookie”— as if journalists had some gall in asking him about such trivial things as patients dying waiting for ER care while there were chocolatey chips waiting to be enjoyed.
To most everyone else, there are more pressing issues – so pressing, that one government MLA, Raj Sherman, an ER doctor himself, went rogue. Early Wednesday morning, he unleashed an email to the public, accusing his own government of making a right holy mess of Alberta health care. The premier had “broken his promise” to improve wait times; his trust in his leader had been “tarnished.” He could no longer support the decisions of the Tories or AHS.
If Mr. Duckett would not respond to reporters’ repeated questions about Dr. Sherman’s charges, premier Ed Stelmach delivered his response Monday: he suspended the doctor from the PC caucus.
This was a fascinating strategy – standing by the cookie connoisseur while tossing the Progressive Conservatives’ most credible voice on health care. Dr. Sherman still puts in shifts at Edmonton’s Northeast Community Health Centre; he surely knows more about emergency care than the other 67 PC MLAs combined. Plus, his father is ill, and it was due to what he said were his five “near-death situations this year alone due to waits in the emergency room” that sparked his outburst.
The doctor’s suspension was particularly curious since the premier had cleared his schedule to discuss Dr. Sherman’s email, and reportedly urged him to stay as parliamentary assistant for health; Dr. Sherman publicly apologized, the premier publicly accepted. It would have looked “disastrous” for Mr. Stelmach to fire a doctor with a passion for patient welfare, one columnist persuasively argued Monday. Hours later, Mr. Stelmach did precisely that.
“He spent two-and-half hours begging this guy not to quit. Why? So they could kick him out five days later?” wonders one baffled provincial Tory organizer.
The premier cannot think this will shut Dr. Sherman up: he will sit as an independent, but he’s on a crusade, has little now to lose, and has a decent list of ideas for health care reform, presented to the legislature in an emergency health debate Thursday, that will likely have opposition parties headhunting him, as the Wildrose Alliance did with Guy Boutilier, the last MLA the PCs martyred when he dared speak up for his constituents on (unsurprisingly) unrealized health care promises. In his speech Dr. Sherman quoted no less authority on matters of conscience than Martin Luther King: “Our life begins to end on the day we become silent on the things that matter.”
National Post – November 22, 2010
Paying more and getting less
By Tasha Kheiriddin
‘I’m eating my cookie – can’t you see I’m eating my cookie?” If Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach has any sense, these will go down as the famous last words in the career of one Dr. Steven Duckett, president and CEO of Alberta Health Services (AHS). Dr. Duckett made the remarks to reporters Nov. 19, after a meeting about hospital wait times and overcrowded emergency rooms. Journalists wanted answers to some simple questions; Mr. Duckett wanted to stuff his mouth with sweets. The ensuing exchange has the entire province talking about the CEO’s arrogance, the dire state of the province’s health-care system and what to do next.
To date, the incident has been seen by almost 80,000 viewers on YouTube, and countless others on television. The next day, Dr. Duckett issued an apology on his website, but didn’t face the media. He wrote, “I’m sorry. I know I got it wrong this time.” The provincial Health Minister, Gene Zwozdesky, stated that the AHS board chair will look into the comments, but that he retains confidence in his cookie-chomping CEO. Premier Ed Stelmach blogged that “Albertans are tiring of the recent theatrics which have garnered most of the attention, and so am I.”
Talk about missing the point. Dr. Duckett’s fit of pique wasn’t a case of theatrics – it was a case of poor judgment. Not punishing it is a similar error. The CEO’s arrogant performance comes at a sensitive time: On Oct. 22, 2010, a letter from the head of emergency services for the Alberta Medical Association, Paul Parks, was leaked to the media. It warned that emergency rooms faced “potential catastrophic collapse … There must be intervention immediately.” The letter caused a public furor as stories emerged about 20-hour emergency room waits, a woman having her cervix examined in view of other patients and a heart patient dying while waiting for treatment.
The day before Dr. Duckett morphed into the cookie monster, Raj Sherman, the parliamentary assistant to the Health Minister, blamed the agency he heads for this situation. “They’ve got the biggest [budgetary] pay raise in history to deliver health care. They’ve been given the best staff in the nation … The leadership in AHS needs to inspire the frontline staff.”
Ironically, it is Dr. Sherman who got punished for speaking out (he was booted from caucus yesterday afternoon) while Dr. Duckett is still sitting pretty in his post, which pays him $575,000 a year in salary, plus up to $144,000 in bonuses.