Dr. John Cowell’s contract extended as sole administrator of Alberta Health Services

Click to play video: 'AHS administrator John Cowell’s contract renewed to December'
AHS administrator John Cowell’s contract renewed to December
Alberta Health Services is extending its contract with Dr. John Cowell. He was brought in as AHS administrator to replace the 11-member board in Nov. 2022. Critics say the health-care system hasn't been fixed under Cowell and don't think he's the right person for the job. Provincial affairs reporter Saif Kaisar has the details – Jun 23, 2023

Dr. John Cowell will continue to serve as the sole administrator of Alberta Health Services for the remainder of this year, but the opposition NDP and one of the province’s unions is questioning how effective his leadership has been.

Cowell was named the official administrator of AHS back in November, when Premier Danielle Smith dismissed the former 12-person governing board of the province’s health care authority.

Smith charged Cowell with reducing wait times for things like EMS, emergency departments and surgery, and tasked him with reporting directly to the health minister of the time — Jason Cooping — and herself.

Cowell’s mandate included working with front-line health-care workers to develop long-term changes and he was charged with establishing a Health Care Action Plan.

The province said the Health Care Action Plan focuses on improving EMS response times, decreasing emergency room and surgical wait times, and “empowering health care workers to deliver health care.”

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Click to play video: 'New virtual health-care service in Alberta addresses worker shortage, raises concerns about universal health care'
New virtual health-care service in Alberta addresses worker shortage, raises concerns about universal health care

On Friday, the new Minister of Health, Adriana LaGrange, said she was pleased with the progress made under Cowell’s leadership in areas he was tasked with.

“We already have tangible results Albertans can see,” she said in a statement. “I look forward to working with him over the next six months to continue improvements in health care delivery until a permanent governance structure for AHS is developed.”

Alberta Health claims the improvements since November included:

  •  A 17 per cent decrease in wait times at emergency departments
  • A drop by almost half in EMS response times for the most urgent calls in metro and urban areas (to 12 minutes)
  • Fewer patients waiting longer than clinically recommended for surgeries
  • The addition of more nurses, paramedics and other front-line staff

Mike Parker, the president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, said he was surprised to hear Cowell’s contract was extended.

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“What do they need him for? They claimed that he was going to have this all done wrapped up in 90 days,” Parker told Global News on Friday. “What they’ve said is that health care has been fixed.

“I’m not sure if they’re telling the full truth to Albertans.”

Parker said wait times for many emergency rooms are not available because many facilities have experienced such severe staffing shortages, they’ve been unable to open some days — or in the case of places like Tofield, for months at a time.

“ERs are shut down. So there is no wait time, I guess, if you don’t have any more ERs. We’re talking about Rocky Mountain House that’s been closed, Lac La Biche, Ponoka, Coronation, Edson, the list goes on — Smoky Lake, Milk River, Consort, it goes on and on.”

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Parker also said the province changed how a red alerts or “Code Reds” — when there aren’t any ambulances available to respond to calls — are tracked. Now, he said they’re called stacked calls and less data is tracked and released.

“It used to be from the moment you dialled 911 until a paramedic walked through the door of your house — that’s how they tracked the call, the per-minute time,” he said.

“Today, they only track from the time an ambulance is dispatched — which means they need to have one available. And again, we don’t call them Code Red anymore.”

“So we are missing a massive component of time tracking by not even referencing that moment of the call being placed until they can actually find paramedics to send to your house.”

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Parker said at the end of the day, Albertans are still waiting for ambulances.

Staffing continues to be an issue for the health-care system, Parker said, adding there are more than 3,000 vacant postings at AHS.

“At the end of the day, we don’t have the people to work in this system to save the lives of Albertans who desperately need it,” Parker said.

He said the buck stops with LaGrange and called on her to do more to address the concerns of frontline health-care workers.

Click to play video: 'AHS data shows thousands of paramedic shifts unfilled in 2022'
AHS data shows thousands of paramedic shifts unfilled in 2022

The opposition NDP also said Smith promised under Cowell’s leadership, the health-care system would be fixed in 90 days and that hasn’t happened.

“It is now 218 days since his appointment and Albertans are still experiencing 15-hour wait times at major hospitals, random obstetric closures, severe staff shortages in rural emergency rooms, ongoing lab service delays and the continued exodus of Alberta doctors and health-care workers to other jurisdictions,” said a statement from David Shepherd, Alberta NDP MLA for Edmonton-City Centre.

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“Despite Danielle Smith’s claims, there is still a crisis in Alberta health care and neither the UCP nor Dr. Cowell has a plan to fix it.

“There are still tens of thousands of Albertans with no access to a family doctor.”

Cowell issued a statement saying he was grateful to continue to do the job.

“AHS continues to address priority areas and drive measurable, meaningful improvement. We are fortunate to have the best health care workers in the world, and as an organization, we are focused on step-by-step improvement that is already leading to better access to care,” Cowell said.

The province said Cowell will also support the work to implement a recovery-oriented system of mental health and addictions care within AHS.

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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.

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