EDMONTON – The Alberta government has tabled new rules for an independent inquiry into allegations of doctor intimidation – but opponents say it doesn’t have the power to investigate at the highest levels.
Bill 24 was among a number of bills presented by Premier Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservatives as the legislature’s fall sitting resumed Monday.
The bill, introduced by Health Minister Fred Horne, will beef up the arm’s-length Health Quality Council. It will give the council more power to act independently, produce evidence and compel hostile witnesses to testify.
“The powers given to the power are considerable (and) they must be applied fairly,” said Horne.
Redford promised legislation to deal with allegations that doctors have for years been systematically intimidated or punished for speaking out on substandard patient care.
The Canadian Medical Association has called for a public inquiry, saying the problem is Canada-wide but most acute in Alberta.
Critics say the government should have used the existing Public Inquiries Act rather than draft an entirely new bill, but Horne said the legislation was needed to ensure the independence of the inquiry.
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Under the Public Inquiries Act, cabinet picks the inquiry panel. Under Bill 24, it will be handled by the Health Quality Council.
“We felt as a caucus it was important in this circumstance that Albertans would not want to see cabinet directly appointing the members of the inquiry panel,” said Horne.
Horne also said there are explicit provisions to ensure patient information is kept private.
The Health Quality Council is already examining allegations of doctor intimidation, but doesn’t have the power to get some of the answers it needs.
Opposition Liberal critic David Swann says under Bill 24, the council may never get to determine if the culture of intimidation came from the highest levels of government.
The act allows cabinet to withhold all of its documents and any documents it considers crucial to public interest. Those provisions exist in the Public Inquiries Act and were transported over to Bill 24.
“The minister has the ability to override any evidence and protect it from public scrutiny,” said Swann.
“It raises questions about how just how much we’re going to get at the ministerial involvement in some of the decisions,” he said.
Opposition NDP leader Brian Mason said the council needs freedom to operate, given that some of the allegations surround Horne himself.
Last year, Sherman alleged Horne called the head of the Alberta Medical Association to express concern about the mental health of Raj Sherman, then a Tory member and emergency room doctor kicked out of caucus for publicly criticizing government health policy.
Sherman labelled Horne’s phone call a smear campaign. Horne said it was a call of general concern for Sherman and didn’t touch on his mental health.
Sherman is now the leader of the Liberals.
“It (the Horne affair) really puts a bit of odour around the whole thing,” said Mason.
Also Monday, the government introduced legislation to create stiffer penalties for drunk drivers, especially repeat offenders.
Under Bill 26, drivers who with blood alcohol content over. 08 would have their licence suspended until the criminal case is dealt with in court.
There will be more administrative sanctions for drivers in the legal grey area of .05 to .08 blood alcohol content.
Justice Minister Verlyn Olson also introduced an act mandating general elections be held very four years during a three-month window between March 1 and May 31 starting in 2012.
Critics say Redford broke a promise on an exact fixed election date. Olson said the window makes more sense to avoid an election conflicting with a floating religious holiday, such as Easter.
A new act will give landowners more options and recourse if their land is expropriated by the government for a major project, like a highway or water reservoir.
Another bill will expand the power of the Child and Youth Advocate by having the office report directly to the legislature rather than the minister.
The numbers also changed in the legislature Monday.
Longtime Lethbridge Liberal Bridget Pastoor crossed the floor to join the Tories.
Pastoor said Redford’s leadership was key to her decision.
The Tories now have 68 members in the 83-seat legislature. The Liberals have eight, the Wildrose four, the NDs two and the Alberta Party one.