Today, provincial Opposition frontbencher David Cubberley slammed Les Vertesi's presence on Gordon Campbell's European mystery health tour, saying "If the premier wants to send a message that he's going to lead a real dialogue on healthcare and that he can be trusted to do this, he does not want to take someone along with him who is an advocate of user fees and two-tier medicine." But, in a scrum, Health Minister George Abbott pooh-poohed that attack saying, "I just don't believe the Opposition health critic is providing a fair and balanced analysis" of the doctor's views - despite having admitted minutes earlier that he was "not an expert on Dr. Vertesi and his work." The following is a complete transcript of that scrum.
Media Is this the premier's brother-in-law?
Minister Abbott It is the premier's brother-in-law.
Media Do you think that's appropriate?
Minister Abbott I think that's appropriate. I don't have a problem with that no.
Media You don't see it as nepotism?
Minister Abbott No, I don't see it as nepotism.
Media The only advisor on the trip is the premier's brother-in-law?
Minister Abbott I have actually an assistant deputy minister who will be joining us - Craig Knight. Penny Ballem was going to join us. Unfortunately, her sister is undergoing serious surgery next week. So she's unable to join us. Craig Knight is also there. And I think it will be very good. I'm looking forward to hearing the contributions.
Media What are his special qualifications for being on this trip?
Minister Abbott Mr. Vertesi or Dr. Vertesi in fairness has some 30 years experience as an emergency room specialist. He was the director of medical services at Royal Columbian Hospital and was for 18-years the director of the emergency department at Royal Columbian. He is a well-known author. I was pleased to see the Opposition health critic had a copy of one of his publications. I mean, Dr. Vertesi is well-qualified. He's British Columbia's member on the Canada Health Council. And the times that I've had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Dr. Vertesi I've found him to be very knowledgeable, very balanced in the way that he looks at things.
Media Dr. Vertesi has compared - in the past - the public healthcare system in Canada to communism, the Berlin Wall. Made various different references to that. Do you share that view?
Minister Abbott I don't think I would be taking quite that rhetorical flourish. And I'm not sure he did.
Media Well, he did. It's in his book. Numerous times. Have you read his book?
Minister Abbott I have not read his book. And I have no immediate plans to read his book either.
Media Why don't you have plans to read his book?
Minister Abbott Well, if you looks me finish answering the first question, I'll be happy to answer your next question.
Minister Abbott If, I presume if he was making reference to Eastern Bloc countries, I suspect he was probably lamenting what - in his view - was a lack of choice in the medical system. But I'm not an expert on Dr. Vertesi and his work. I do know that he is a very knowledgeable, very experienced physician - as well as someone who has been for a long-time been a leader around public policy issues. I believe the Justice Institute awarded him a prestigious award. So I'm not an expert on this. But it's not as if we've picked someone off the street.
Media Shouldn't you be an expert in his work if he's going to be coming with you and advising you? Shouldn't you be aware of his work?
Minister Abbott I have a range of advisors, starting with Penny Ballem. I don't consider Dr. Vertesi necessarily an advisor for me. It's great that Dr. Vertesi can join us. He is British Columbia's representative on the Canada Health Council. I think he can, I'm sure, benefit from looking at other jurisdictions.
Media How did Dr. Vertisi come to be on this trip and why not invite the NDP?
Minister Abbott The aim of the brief visit to Europe is to look at four jurisdictions where I think we can learn some things about how we might improve incrementally or otherwise the healthcare system in British Columbia. For example, Norway has some of the best prevention programs in the world for what they do. Britain has taken a change agenda that is quite remarkable. And they are also undertaking some work rather similar to ActNow BC on the prevention side - which I'm sure will be useful. France is, according to the World Health Organization, the number one jurisdiction in terms of healthcare. And just about every analysis I've seen always sees them as number one, two or three. And Sweden as well has done some interesting things in terms of collaboration with private healthcare models. These are all things that we can learn about. It is not always to go over and see some fundamental change in the way healthcare is delivered. There's lots of incremental improvements that can be made by looking at what other jurisdictions are doing.
Media But what about bringing the Opposition so there's some balance - to provide another perspective on this process?
Minister Abbott Well, I suppose there's no limit to the number of people we could invite. The aim was to keep the group small. Mr. Vertesi - Dr. Vertesi, by the way, is paying his own way. The government of British Columbia is not paying for Dr. Vertesi. He is joining and he is carrying his own costs in respect of joining the tour. The aim was to keep it small. The premier - as you know - is there now, he's going there today for the final four days of the Olympics. And so the health tour will be piggbacked onto the final four days of the Olympics. I understand Martyn Brown is there as well - the premier's chief of staff. I will be joining the premier there as well - I believe on Monday. As I say, Dr. Penny Ballem my deputy had hoped to join us but can't because of a serious illness in her family.
Media Who's idea was it (for Dr. Vertesi to join the tour)?
Minister Abbott I can't speak to who's idea it was. I understand as British Columbia's representative on the Canada Health Council that it was thought that he might be an appropriate one to invite. I understand he's paying his own way. And...
Media So this is not really your trip. This is the premier's trip. And so he would know?
Minister Abbott Well, look it's everybody's trip Vaughn.
Media So who invited him?
Minister Abbott Well, I didn't invite him. So you can ask the premier's office who invited him. But I think it's great that he's coming along.
Media Doesn't it send sort of a signal when you take an expert who has a particular opinion on where you should go with healthcare when this is supposed to be a fact-finding mission?
Minister Abbott Well, again, I would not accept the Opposition health critic's evaluation of Dr. Vertesi's work as a careful, sustained, thorough and fair and balanced analysis of Dr. Vertesi's work.
Media But you just told us you're not an expert on it? Didn't you just say you're not an expert on his work.
Minister Abbott Of course, I'm not an expert on his work.
Media So how the heck do you know what he says?
Minister Abbott Well, because I just don't believe the Opposition health critic is providing a fair and balanced analysis of...
Media Well he's read his book, unlike you. Maybe he knows more then you about what's in the book?
Minister Abbott Well that's great. I'm proud if he's done that Vaughn.
Media Do you know who invited him then?
Minister Abbott I do not. I believe, again the trip was organized out of the premier's office. And I suspect he would have been invited by the premier's office.
Media Government announced this at 4:00 yesterday, when most reporters were covering the budget. Was government trying to hide Dr. Vertesi?
Minister Abbott Government never tries to hide anything, as you know.