Nova Scotia premier dismisses CEO of health authority, abolishes board of directors

HALIFAX — Premier Tim Houston wasted no time implementing his campaign promise to reform his province's health system Wednesday, announcing the dismissal of the CEO of the Nova Scotia Health Authority and abolishing the agency's board of directors.

The move came one day after Houston and his cabinet were sworn into office.

Houston then introduced a four-person "leadership team" he said would streamline management and usher in the change Nova Scotians voted for when his Progressive Conservatives won a majority government in the Aug. 17 provincial election.

The Tory campaign focused almost exclusively on fixing health care and Houston has said repeatedly it would be his government's main priority.

"This is not change for the sake of change," Houston told reporters. "Sometimes you have to hit reset. It's time to refocus the efforts … this is only about improving health care."

The 14-member board of directors was a volunteer body and will no longer be in operation. The Health Department confirmed the severance of outgoing CEO Dr. Brendan Carr is about $400,000.

"Everything is focused on making sure people can access health care," Houston said. "The very first step in getting there is empowering a team of people to get it done."

The new management team will be led by Karen Oldfield — who has no health-care experience. She served in the office of former Tory premier John Hamm and is also the former CEO of the agency that runs the Port of Halifax. Houston appointed her interim CEO of the health authority.

Janet Davidson, a former interim CEO of the health authority, is the new administrator of that agency after having served as the outgoing board's chair.

The team also includes Dr. Kevin Orrell, who has been appointed CEO of the newly created Office of Health Care Professionals Recruitment, and Jeannine Lagasse, who is the new deputy minister of the Health Department.

Orrell's office will report directly to Health Minister Michelle Thompson and its job will be to recruit and retain doctors, nurses, continuing-care assistants (CCAs), paramedics and other health professionals. Orrell said the province is at "very low capacity" regarding the number of professionals it needs to deliver quality care.

"Thousands of people are looking for family doctors, there's a vacancy rate … of 20 per cent for nurses and CCAs are in short supply, challenging our long-term care homes," he said. Recruitment, Orrell added, needs to be "stepped up" and streamlined in order for Nova Scotia to remain competitive with other provinces.

Orrell used the example of his daughter, a newly trained doctor, who he said met barriers when she tried to return home to Nova Scotia to work. "It took months of very awkward negotiation before she was offered the job, but luckily she was dedicated to coming back to the province," he said.

Houston said the team will tour the province from Sept. 20 to 23 in order to hear from front-line health professionals.

Meanwhile, Liberal Leader Iain Rankin said Carr and the board have done "tremendous" work over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and he expressed disappointment that health management was being "condensed to four people."

Rankin said the board was a more diverse reflection of the province's population because it had a Black member and an Indigenous member.

"We need diverse voices at the leadership table, especially in places like health care, so my view is that this is a step backwards," he said.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill also panned the announcement, noting that his party had been part of a recent battle to get the health authority board meetings opened to the public.

"Having that board done away with, we've lost that transparency, we've lost that accountability — that's of great concern," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 1, 2021.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

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