Alberta health services board member resigns in response to premier’s plan to replace trustees

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With the looming threat of layoff hanging over their heads, at least one member of Alberta’s health services board has resigned.

In an Oct. 7 letter obtained by CBC News, Deborah Apps says she can’t wait for Premier Danielle Smith to follow through on a promise to replace the 12-member board with a commissioner who will report directly to the minister. of Health. and prime minister.

“I fear that the First Elect’s proposals will further destabilize the working environment for all healthcare workers, adding more uncertainty when frontline staff and those working tirelessly to lead and support them need supportive and thoughtful oversight,” Apps wrote in the letter. , dated the day after members of the United Conservative Party elected Smith their new leader.

Smith, who was sworn in as premier on Oct. 11, pledged to step down from the AHS board for the organization’s pandemic response.

At a press conference last week, Smith said AHS failed to ensure there were enough healthcare workers on the job when it required all employees to be vaccinated against the virus. COVID-19.

In December 2021, AHS placed 1,650 unvaccinated employees without valid exemptions on paid leave. The organization employs 121,000 people.

AHS expected 750 employees to return in March when it lifted the vaccination mandate.

Change of direction

Last week, Smith also said AHS failed to respond to government directives in the spring of 2020 to significantly increase the number of beds available in intensive care units.

“In a business, when they fail to meet goals and they fail to follow direction, you change direction,” Smith said.

Smith told reporters a new governance structure would be in place within 90 days.

In response to emailed questions, Smith’s press secretary Rebecca Polak did not say whether the prime minister was considering replacing just the board or the lead directors as well.

Appointing an administrator to replace the board will allow for quick decision-making, Polak said.

The plan has left health system experts baffled by the aim of replacing a council whose members were appointed by the UCP government and have little involvement in day-to-day decision-making.

AHS is a ‘whipped son for the government,’ says former board member

Stephen Mandel, former leader of the Alberta Party and former Progressive Conservative Minister of Health, served on the board from September 2019 to September 2021.

He does not recall the board having any say in how hospital beds were used or how AHS public health inspectors enforced provincial health orders.

“AHS is really a delivery service for what the government wants to implement,” said Mandel, who also served as mayor of Edmonton for a decade. “And they really become the scapegoat for everyone because they’re the ones in front.”

Former AHS board member Stephen Mandel said the board was instructed, not asked, to implement a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for employees. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Mandel said the board was told AHS would make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for employees. He said it was unclear whether AHS administrators or the government made the decision, but he supported it.

AHS Board Chairman Gregory Turnbull declined a request for an interview.

Apps, the board member who resigned, also declined to do an interview.

His letter says the board has also attracted “outstanding candidates” to fill the vacant CEO position, and that the successful candidate should be able to lead without political interference. Mauro Chies currently serves as interim CEO.

Dr. Verna Yiu left in April after six years as CEO – the longest service in AHS’s 13-year history.

Yiu’s new office at the University of Alberta did not respond to an interview request.

A history of instability

AHS has had turbulent leadership since the former Progressive Conservative government merged health region boards in 2009.

In 2013, the then health minister fired the board over a disagreement over executive pay. The government appointed a series of four trustees to act in place of a board until the NDP government chooses a new board in 2015.

The organization had six CEOs (including two co-CEOs) in its first six years.

None of this flow is good for health care, said independent health policy consultant Steven Lewis. He calls AHS “the most complex organization in Alberta by an infinite factor.”

Lewis said the uncertainty has a huge impact on employee morale, as well as the recruitment and retention of healthcare workers and healthcare system leaders.

He says frequent leadership changes are stopping meaningful improvement because AHS doesn’t have enough time to work toward its rapidly changing goals.

Blame

John Church, professor of political science at the University of Alberta, who co-author of a book this year on Alberta’s health care system, said successive governments have increasingly centralized control of health care under a single entity to prevent pushback from local councils.

He said the AHS board of directors is now a spokesperson for the government.

“I don’t see how you could ever consider building a more compliant group of people.”

Church said the government was looking for a “bad guy” to blame for its handling of the pandemic and AHS fits the bill.

Expelling other members of the AHS leadership team could also stifle innovation, prevent the system from launching new programs and halt spending on anything non-routine, he said.

Church argues that AHS has been a political football and shield from its inception and beyond.

Firing leaders is the last thing AHS needs as it faces pressure from rising COVID-19 and flu cases and a depleted workforce, he said.

“It’s destructive,” Church said. “And it’s actually dangerous to run a healthcare system the way they’re trying to do.”

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