Fear of political fallout hangs in health balance

“It’s a bit of a legal mess at the moment,” was how Health Minister Fred Horne described the aftermath of his decision to fire

“It’s a bit of a legal mess at the moment,” was how Health Minister Fred Horne described the aftermath of his decision to fire the entire AHS superboard last Wednesday morning. Unfortunately, that legal mess won’t be cleared up anytime soon and it comes with a hefty price tag.

The legal mess referred to by the health minister is due to the contractual obligations past and present in outstanding bonuses that were overlooked before the decision to fire the board was made.

The Alberta Health Services board and board chair Stephen Lockwood defied the order from the minister to stop bonuses of up to $3.2 million to be paid to 99 AHS executives as stipulated in their contracts for the 2012-13 year. Lockwood and his board had already removed bonuses from some 500 AHS staff last year. The coming fiscal year will see all bonuses end entirely. Some, including yours truly, would call that progress.

In February, Lockwood and the board gave their word to the 99 remaining top executives that they would receive their pay at risk if they met their performance targets for the fiscal year that recently came to an end. When Wildrose health critic Heather Forsyth pressed him, Horne said he wouldn’t interfere. He repeated that message in March.

Incredibly, Lockwood and the rest of the AHS board have been fired for keeping their word and for refusing to break a contract.

The directive from the minister has also answered the question of just how autonomous the AHS board is, in reality. Repeated claims by the minister that AHS makes its own decisions and that the government doesn’t direct AHS, has obviously been put to rest with what took place last week. Lockwood weighed in, saying, “The government doesn’t publicly need to admit that the AHS board is not independent. Their actions speak much louder than their words.” This continued politicization of AHS decision-making has become not only non-productive, but also expensive financially.

Danielle Smith, leader of the Official Opposition Wildrose, repeated her solution, as she has done several times in the Legislature, to: “Go back to local decision-making, empower local administrators to work with local staff so they can deliver the best patient care, because the centralized model of delivering health care — it just isn’t working.”

Replacing the board will be Janet Davidson, who will be paid $580,000. Comparatively, the 10-member board earned $699,000 in honorariums in 2011-12.

It appears that the firings by Horne were a reaction to the fear of political fallout over the bonuses that were about to be paid. The decision to eliminate the superboard was long overdue and is a step in the right direction. However, it must be coupled with going back to regional boards and local decision-making, or the whole expensive exercise will have been in vain.

— From the Legislature

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