Thursday, 9 April 2009

Life’s Little Ironies Department: Former Health Minister Philippe Couillard Gets Health Critic Lee Soderstrom’s Phone Number

Lee spent several decades at McGill working on health economics, and even though he has left teaching (not a “retirement,” he insists) he has remained vigilant on health related issues. One of the things that raised his ire this winter, as well as that of his McGill colleagues Abby Lippmann and Sam Noumoff, was an apparent serious conflict of interest in a new hire. In January McGill proudly announced that former Quebec Health Minister Philippe Coullard would become a Senior Fellow in its Research Group on Health and Law even though he had blithely and secretly negotiated a contract with a private health provider in the days before he left office last June. That sounds doubtful on its face, but what is worse Couillard at the same time pushed through regulations which make it easier for the private sector to enter the health care domain.

Lee and this friends wrote in a letter to the McGill Reporter, the administration’s bi-weekly publication, that Couillard’s actions before leaving office give an appearance of conflict of interest which McGill should investigate before it allows him to teach. Not surprisingly, nothing has been done about that at McGill. But on the provincial level, the affair raised many eyebrows: the actions of his new employer was investigated by the provincial commissioner charged with regulating lobbies. The firm was cleared of impropriety as a lobby, but Couillard's actions received no government scrutiny because there are no regulations governing what an elected official does in response to a lobby. An attempt to fill that gap--a proposal by the opposition Parti Québécois to set up an ethics commissioner for the provincial legislature--went down to defeat yesterday.

Also yesterday a friend who didn’t know that Lee had given up his office tried to call him at his old McGill number and was flabbergasted to get Couillard’s voice mail instead. It makes sense, in a way: somebody leaves, somebody arrives, and you just switch telephone numbers. But you couldn’t have asked for a weirder switch: if it had bee April 1 one might suspect a practical joke. Maybe, though, Couillard will get a message through the messages that Lee's cronies leave: we need to safe guard our universally accessible, single-payer health system.

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