Health Minister Sarah Hoffman dodges questions about 'inhumane' Covenant Health policy

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman refused Tuesday to explain what, if anything, she did to address a Covenant Health policy that forced a terminally ill patient to have her assisted-dying assessment on a sidewalk outside the Edmonton General.

Policy forced terminally ill woman to have assisted-dying assessment on sidewalk

Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman speaks at a news conference about a new patient protection bill introduced Tuesday. (CBC)

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman refused Tuesday to explain what, if anything, she did to address a Covenant Health policy that forced a terminally ill patient to have her assisted-dying assessment on a sidewalk outside the Edmonton General.

"I shared the frustration that I think all Albertans felt when they heard about somebody receiving a health assessment on the street," Hoffman said in response to questions from CBC News at an unrelated news conference.

For a week, Hoffman has refused repeated interview requests from CBC News about Covenant Health's treatment of 66-year-old Doreen Nowicki, which raised questions about the role of religion within Canada's health-care systems.

In May 2017, Nowicki was a patient in palliative care at the Edmonton General, a facility operated by Covenant Health.

Her quality of life ruined by ALS, Nowicki requested medical assistance in dying (MAID) in May 2017. By that point, Nowicki could no longer walk or speak, and could barely eat.

But for religious reasons, Covenant Health, a Catholic health provider, refuses to facilitate MAID and does not even want patients to be assessed by Alberta Health Services clinicians on its property.

Covenant can make exceptions in rare circumstances for patients who are extremely ill, though that decision is entirely discretionary.  

As she pursued a dignified end to her life, Doreen Nowicki had to be transported to a facility she didn't know, because her continuing care centre, operated by Covenant Health, refuses to facilitate medically assisted deaths.

Nowicki had been granted permission to have her assessments in her palliative care bed, but inexplicably, an hour before the first appointment, Covenant abruptly revoked that permission.

Her family was forced to bundle her into a wheelchair and wheel her out to street benches for the appointment. Nowicki became too distraught to complete the assessment. Her family said she was traumatized by her treatment.

Internal documents obtained through freedom of information show Hoffman's office received a complaint from a doctor about Nowicki's treatment in February.

At a news conference Tuesday, the minister was asked to explain what if anything she has done to address Covenant's policy, which experts have said is inhumane and infringes on patients' rights.

"Immediately, as soon as this came to my attention, we contacted Covenant Health to find out what specifically happened in this situation and what they are going to do to ensure it never happens again," Hoffman said, without providing any specific information.

However, the minister said she would provide more answers after she meets with Nowicki's family on Thursday.

"I really do want to honour the fact that this has been very difficult for them, and I am grateful that they are taking some time to talk to us," Hoffman said.

Covenant Health has defended its MAID policy and said it has improved its communication so a similar incident doesn't happen again. The health provider refused to say who revoked permission for Nowicki to have the assessment in its facility, and why.

If someone you know has had a similar experience, or you have information about this story, please contact us in confidence at cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca.

@jennierussell_