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Fired AHS board member answers critics

Posted on July 4, 2013 by Taber Times

As the dust has settled from the firing of the entire Alberta Health Services board by Health Minister Fred Horne, one of those casualties stands by its record and that of AHS staff for the job it was entrusted to do.

“I stand behind our staff, unreservedly and I absolutely support and respect, whether I agree or disagree with the right of the minister and the premier the decision that they made,” said Don Johnson, M.D. of Taber councillor and former AHS board member, who served as vice-chair of the audit and finance committee and the health advisory committee. “The one fundamental thing about democracy and governance is when you are employed by a government to be on a board, you are accountable to the people of Alberta through that ministry.”

That being said, Johnson added there were so many things wrong on so many levels to the decision in which some for the background will never come to light, according to Johnson.

In the court of public opinion, the ‘pay-at-risk’ on the surface seemed to be the flash point toward the firing of the board for refusing to forego it. The week before the firing of the AHS board, there was an emergency committee-of-the-whole meeting that was called where many were reluctant about taking the pay-at-risk because of what was already said in the media about high-priced executives getting bonuses, in which Johnson took issue with the term ‘bonus.’

“Pay-at-risk, a lot of people don’t understand that. They are not millions of dollars in bonuses. You are talking about three million bucks here that they had earned as part of a contractual obligation,” said Johnson.

“Our management people in Alberta are paid below the average of Canada. You are not going to attract good people if you don’t pay them well for the job they are doing as highly-skilled individuals. We are the largest corporation in Canada (AHS), we have 100,000 employees, you are telling me 99 senior managers are too many to run that corporation with that number of people under it. You can’t do it, at least not effectively.”

Johnson added the firing of the board came at a time where the health-care system seemed to be turning the corner in its delivery. Looking at some key metrics compared to other provinces. Back in December, the AHS board met with the senior auditor from Health Canada. For Alberta, and every other province in Canada to get transfer payments you have to qualify from an audit.

“She said specifically in that meeting ‘Alberta in the last two years has made nothing short of a remarkable turnaround that I have never seen in my experience.’ That is coming from someone who is unbiased,” said Johnson. “There are still some things we need to do and there always will be. But, the metrics we saw that were presented, show that Alberta in a number of the key metrics are number one in Canada and number two or three in some others in Canada. And who got us to that? It’s the staff, the morale was as high as it could be.”

Johnson added he had his phone ring off the hook from senior health staff in the province, some in tears wondering if they should stay in the province given the dysfunction of the system on the higher levels. Dysfunction that some attribute to simply a personality conflict between Horne and former AHS board chairman Stephen Lockwoood.

“You have to have a level of independence, but you can’t tell the government to kiss off. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like what you’re being told or not, if you don’t like it, resign, get out of there,” said Johnson.

The M.D. of Taber councillor applauded moves made by AHS Chris Eagle in which he restored local decision making. The perception that an AHS ‘superboard’ was making all the decisions is simply false according to Johnson.

“When I see the media and (Wildrose leader) Danielle Smith saying we need local decision making, it’s already there. He set up five zone around the province and there is a senior VP in each of those zones and you have a senior medical officer in each of those zones,” said Johnson. “Chris gave them the authority to make decisions locally because they know the local scene. We are not where we want to be, but we’ve made significant progress. You don’t turn this around overnight.”  

In the wake of the board firing, former Capital Health executive Janet Davidson was appointed administrator for AHS. Johnson noted she is more than capable to fill the position, but cannot do what the board was doing in getting feedback from various communities.

“Who is going to go out and meet with these community groups? If you don’t involve municipalities you are going to be dead in the water.”

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