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Commentary

COMMENTARY: Time for a legitimate review of how AHS operates

Tyler Shandro, Minister of Health is sworn into office, in Edmonton on Tuesday April 30, 2019. .
Tyler Shandro, Minister of Health is sworn into office, in Edmonton on Tuesday April 30, 2019. . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Remember the Calgary Flames of the early 1990s or late 2000s? The teams that seemed to have so much talent and yet couldn’t get past the first round of the playoffs.

The one constant every year seemed to be the revolving door of coaches and general managers who tried to get the team “over the hump.”

It’s that same kind of feeling I get when looking over what happened over the last decade at Alberta Health Services.

It all started with AHS CEO Stephen Duckett — remember him? — being in charge of making $1.1-billion worth of budget cuts. It was supposed to be a pretty simple process which, ten years later, leaves us asking if we’re any further ahead than we were when we amalgamated all of the regional boards into the so-called “superboard.”

Issues like wait times and acute care bed space to worker intimidation and massive severance packages have instead dogged the organization.

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The latest house call from the doctor came this week in the form of recommendations from the province’s so-called “blue ribbon” panel on finances. The report — headed by Janice MacKinnon — made several observations in what was described as an overarching “spending problem.”

That report went so far as to say the health care system in Alberta needs “major transformation,” including a recommendation for private clinics to help get spending back in line with other provinces where major gaps in per capita spending exist.

Where did we go wrong? How did we get here just ten years into the creation of Alberta Health Services? Why are we still not a well-oiled machine?

If you go back to the hockey analogy, you’ll understand that the ship has been steered by several people. Just look at the list of CEOs over the last decade:

  • Stephen Duckett (2009-2010)
  • Dr. Chris Eagle (2010-2013)
  • Dr. Duncan Campbell (2013)
  • Brenda Huband and Rick Trimp (2013-2014)
  • Vickie Kaminski (2014-2015)
  • Dr. Verna Yiu (2016-present)

Go one step further and you’ll see even the health ministry has seen a massive turnover:

  • Ron Liepert (2008-2010)
  • Gene Zwozdesky (2010-2011)
  • Fred Horne (2011-2014)
  • Stephen Mandel (2014-2015)
  • Sarah Hoffman (2015-2019)
  • Tyler Shandro (current)

It’s pretty hard to deliver on a vision when the vision seemingly changes every 18 months.

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I don’t blame the current provincial government for wanting to do a full-scale review of operations. I wouldn’t even mind if AHS underwent a zero-based budgeting process.

Figure out what it takes to run our system (i.e. doctors, nurses, computer systems, maintenance, etc.), match that with the expectations of the public on wait times and all the other deliverables we always hear about and see if we can finally streamline the system.

Not only does this fix things in the short term, but it also shows a vision for the expectations going forward. This is the only way you’re ever going to introduce any kind of calm or normalcy to how things are operated.

Without that, we’re just spinning our tires and introducing another vision that will only be changed in another couple of years.

Back when the superboard was created, then-Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft had his worries about the lack of a game plan.

“I’m concerned that tomorrow could be the beginning of a very turbulent period for Alberta’s health care system,” Taft told 770 CHQR in Sept. 2009. “I wish I was optimistic but it feels like this government is lurching from crisis to crisis.”

As it turns out, he was right.

One more time with the sports analogy, if we want to make the playoffs this year — that is, get costs under control — we can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.

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