Alberta fires health service board over autonomy and salary bonuses

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew

Alberta's health service and the provincial government have been locked in an ongoing debate surrounding $3.2 million in bonuses promised to executives, and the value of autonomy in the health sector. But none of that matters anymore because the entire board of governors has been fired.

The Canadian Press reports that Health Minister Fred Horne fired the entire 10-member board after it refused to cancel bonuses promised to 99 executives.

The entire board has been replaced at least temporarily by one person: Janet Davidson, a former nurse and current health official.

The Alberta Health Service was set up as an arm's-length agency in order to run the province's network of hospitals and clinics without interference from the government. Chairman Stephen Lockwood refused to cancel the $3.2 million in bonuses, arguing that it was not the health ministry's place to dictate how the agency operates.

"Today is about the ability of AHS to operate independently from government and our ability to make decisions that we believe are in the best interest of providing quality health care for Albertans," Lockwood said on Tuesday.

"We must remain an arms-length organization if we are to succeed. Our Board has a clear mandate, but for us to govern effectively there must be a separation between AHS and the government."

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That comment came one day before the entire board was canned, suggesting independence and autonomy were low on Alberta's Conservative government's list of concerns.

Premier Alison Redford said, via the Canadian Press:

“When we appoint people to act on boards, they are serving the shareholder and that shareholder is Albertans, and Albertans are represented by the minister of health and other elected people.

“So it is very important when boards are going about making decisions and carrying out their work that they are thinking about the need for oversight [and that] they are thinking about our connection to the community.”

Isn't that just a roundabout way of saying, "Do what we tell you to do?" This would be the opposite of autonomy and bordering on tragicomedy considering the spending complaints recently tied the Alberta government.

Last year, Redford was accused of handpicking her ex-husband's law firm to be part of a multi-million dollar government tobacco litigation contract.

Her party also faced questions about an excessively large and legally questionable donation check written by billionaire Daryl Katz.

There was also the revelation that Redford has paid out more than $2 million in severance payments to former employees over the past three years.

The $2 million in severance made to 18 outgoing staffers stands up notably to the $3.2 million in bonuses divided between 99 health industry executives.

The board of directors are said to have been let go without severance packages, however.

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There is a reason groups like the Alberta Health Service operate at an arm's length of the government. Politicizing the institution could undermine its ability to do the job properly.

A province-wide health service isn't a gas station, where anyone who applies for the employment can pretty much get the job done. The AHS needs to attract the best candidates in the industry, and that often means offering and paying bonuses.

Lockwood says a report was completed last year about how the AHS was managed, but was never released. He inferred it came back with positive findings. He also said the 2012-13 fiscal year saw the AHS record a $100-million surplus.

Those numbers would suggest the AHS was being run very efficiently. That would likely be thanks to the top-notch executives lured to the agency thanks in part to the promise of a salary that included bonuses.

Not that it matters anymore. The AHS board is gone, replaced by a government-appointed representative. Nothing to see here.