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H1N1. When Big Shots Jump the Queue

By , contributor
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I once attended an international conference where a Latin American delegate asked a staff member of a prominent American Jewish organization whether her association enjoyed democratic governance. She rightly replied that her own and most other such groups were governed not through elections but by self perpetuating “makcherocracys” (a makcher in Yiddish is an influential person or ‘big deal’). 

That is hardly scandalous. We all know the cliché, that “money talks” and those large contributors are given places on the boards of voluntary associations, universities and hospitals, whether Jewish or gentile.

These board members receive further koved, or honors, and perhaps higher offices in the organizational hierarchy. We all take such privileges for granted, as the price of encouraging philanthropy and a type of voluntarism.

However, in the midst of the current H1N1 flu pandemic, many of us are less sanguine when hospital board members jump the queues and receive vaccinations before young children, pregnant women, and even those with immune deficiencies.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not getting on my high horse and saying that I would refuse the opportunity to get an early vaccination, if possible. But retired Profs living on modest pensions are not normally invited to join hospital boards. In any case, the responsibility belongs to the administrators rather than their boards.

Two of the hospitals most prominently cited for inoculating their board members were Mt. Sinai in Toronto and the Jewish General in Montreal . However, subsequently non-Jewish institutions were also named.

I am also quite aware that celebrity athletes and others have been enabled to get the shots and as Ontario ’s Minister of health Deb Matthews, sarcastically noted: "well, I'm sure that all pregnant players of the Raptors and the Maple Leafs have received their vaccinations, as have all under age five." She went on to note that those administering the system have a higher social and ethical responsibility than to yield to their economically powerful board members.

The point is that our hospitals in Canada are public institutions and not created to privilege their board members.

Let me give you an analogy from a field I know well, the University realm. In the United States it is well known that the private Ivy League universities employ a system of what are termed “legacy admissions”. Through this system the children of alumni, or major financial contributors, are given an edge in the admission competition, as are athletes and affirmative action cases. Even in the private institutions, such privileging has been questioned because it discriminates in favor of old elites and offends the principle of meritocracy. Yet, a private institution can, it seems, still get away with it.

However, quite recently a major scandal was revealed at the public University of Illinois . That raised a very different question. It seems that the top officers of the school and its board of trustees were pressuring admissions officers to admit even some students who did not meet the usual admission standards but had “clout” or sponsors including wealthy donors, trustees, and public officials.

The Chicago Tribune pursued this scandal and eventually the top officers of the University and several of the trustees were forced to resign. An independent commission, headed by former White House counsel Judge Abner Mikva, found that “failures in leadership contributed to a University culture that too easily tolerated undue influence and an overall admissions approach that merged, rather than separated, an otherwise unremarkable institutional desire to cultivate relationships and curry favor with the rich and powerful,” as opposed to the university’s obligation to maintain quality admission standards and equity. Thus, the administrators of public institutions were held to a strict, non-discriminatory standard.

Our own faith in the fairness of Canadian hospitals and their commitment to equality has been shaken by a few revelations of the privileging of the wealthy and powerful by administrators who ignored the government guidelines. After the current crisis some of our hospital administrators should be held accountable for their actions and appropriately disciplined, in order to restore confidence in the system. A public system of medical care must not be undermined by the ethical lapses of some administrators.

The big shots, whether Jew or gentile, athlete or businessman, may deserve to be honoured but they are not entitled to preferential health care.

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