Alberta’s premier has dismissed the governing board of the province’s healthcare authority and installed a sole administrator for Alberta Health Services until a new board is named.
Premier Danielle Smith and Health Minister Jason Copping made the announcement Thursday afternoon in Calgary.
“The current system isn’t working fast enough, so we need to do something different,” Smith said, noting the announcement fulfilled one of her UCP leadership campaign promises.
Smith has been critical of how AHS handled the COVID-19 pandemic and has promised to reorganize the entire governance structure of the health-care body.
Dr. John Cowell was named the official administrator of AHS, replacing the 12-person board.
“He can accelerate all the changes we all need to see,” the premier said. “I have every confidence in his ability to deliver meaningful reform for Albertans.”
This is the second time in a decade Cowell has been the official administrator of AHS. In September 2013, Cowell left his CEO chair at the Health Quality Council of Alberta for that role, a move that followed a provincial announcement eliminating five AHS senior executive positions.
Smith said Cowell has been charged with reducing wait times for things like EMS, emergency departments and surgery, and will report directly to Copping and Smith. Cowell said the AHS interim CEO Mauro Chies will report directly to him.
“The role provides a dedicated full-time focus to issues instead of a part-time strategic board,” Copping said, adding the board will be restored “at the appropriate time.”
Copping thanked the outgoing members for their service on the AHS board.
“I’m grateful for the time that you have invested. But we are in an exceptional situation now, and we need to take some exceptional measures to address it,” the health minister said.
Cowell said he was confident he could deliver on the priorities laid out by the government with a patient-centric approach.
“I will be able to make an effective contribution to making healthcare stronger and better for the patient experience,” Cowell said.
Cowell added the province’s health-care system was not in “correct balance” before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Right now we have a very straight focus on what is the pathway that we’re going to tackle first and second: that flow from EMS to admission, bed problems at the other end and surgical wait times,” the new AHS administrator said.
“My job is to quickly and rapidly evaluate (AHS) leadership, (AHS) organizational structure, how are decisions are actually being implemented, acted upon, and how can I expedite that so that we can get action in play now?”
Chies welcomed the returning AHS official administrator.
“We look forward to utilizing his experience and expertise in leveraging new and innovative means to continuously improve our services as a health provider to Albertans,” the AHS CEO said in a statement.
Copping said he expects Cowell’s work to take about six months.
“We’re very keen on a data-based outcome,” Smith said. “We know what we want to do. We know how to measure it. And we’ll be watching for progress.”
The leader of the Opposition likened Thursday’s announcement to “window dressing,” “theatre” and “rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.”
“Today’s announcement does nothing to get Albertans a family doctor, it does nothing to address the specific calls from frontline paramedics to reduce ambulance wait times and nothing to get children’s medication into the hands of Alberta parents,” Rachel Notley said.
The NDP leader added Smith has “absolutely no mandate” to create the second change in AHS leadership this year after Chies replaced Dr. Verna Yiu in April – “more chaos,” in Notley’s words.
“The thing about today’s announcement is all they did was describe the problem,” Notley said. “What we don’t have here is a considered plan to fix the problem.”
Cowell’s mandate includes working with front-line health-care workers to develop long-term changes.
The president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta said it was encouraging to hear enthusiasm from the premier and health minister to address issues in healthcare. But Mike Parker said the health-care professionals union has concerns about changes to working conditions for the members.
“A few months ago, this government was trying to impose double-digit wage rollbacks on our members,” Parker said in a statement. “They are currently transitioning thousands of lab professionals to a private employer, putting their pensions at risk.”
Lorian Hardcastle, associate professor of medical law at the University of Calgary, gave kudos to the identification of EMS, ER and surgery waits, but would have liked to have seen a stronger focus on preventing people from needing those emergency services through primary care.
“I’m not convinced that wiping out the AHS board and bringing in an administrator is the way to address those challenges,” Hardcastle said, noting the outgoing board had institutional knowledge of the strategic challenges the pandemic brought to AHS.
Hardcastle was in favour of a more gradual, stable change to the board to address any deficiencies.
“AHS is a very complicated organization and its oversight from a board requires multiple different competencies and skill sets,” Hardcastle said. “And I don’t think that you can replace the benefit of that knowledge with a single person.”