Premier Danielle Smith fires Alberta health services board, appoints trustee

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Premier Danielle Smith fired 11 members of Alberta’s health services board and replaced them with an administrator.

Dr. John Cowell will now oversee the $15 billion organization – and not for the first time.

“He can accelerate the changes we all need,” Smith said at a press conference Thursday.

Smith tasked Cowell with reducing ambulance wait times, reducing emergency room wait times and reducing surgery wait times in the province.

The government also wants him to consult with healthcare workers to design longer-term reforms to the system.

Cowell will report to Health Minister Jason Copping, who said the government needs to act faster to address health system challenges.

Unlike board members, who hold part-time positions, Cowell will be a full-time government employee.

Cowell said he understands audiences have heard these promises before and may feel skeptical.

“I really hope that I will be able to effectively contribute to making health care stronger and a better experience for the patient,” he said.

“If we fail, that’s on me,” he later added.

In 2013, Cowell served a one-year term as a trustee of AHS after the then Progressive Conservative government sacked the board. He was also CEO of the Health Quality Council of Alberta.

Replacing the AHS board was one of Smith’s campaign promises for UCP leadership. Last month, she said a new governance structure for the provincial health authority would be in place within 90 days.

Knowing of Smith’s plans for the board, one member tendered his resignation last month as soon as Smith was elected party leader.

Smith said AHS failed to ensure there were enough healthcare workers on the job during the COVID-19 pandemic when it required all employees to be vaccinated against the disease.

In December 2021, AHS placed 1,650 unvaccinated employees without valid exemptions on paid leave. The organization employs 121,000 people. About 750 of them were due to return to work last March when the mandate was lifted.

Smith also said AHS neglected to create enough intensive care unit beds in hospitals earlier during the pandemic.

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

Smith also this week fired former chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw and replaced her with AHS vice president Dr. Mark Joffe.

Alberta Health Services also has an interim CEO after the now disbanded board terminated the employment of CEO Dr. Verna Yiu.

In 2013, former Prime Minister Alison Redford’s former health minister also sacked the AHS board of the day after members clashed with the government over executive pay.

Four trustees, including Cowell, acted in place of a board until the NDP government appointed new members in 2015.

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