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AHS accountability is no small thing

When you see something as incendiary as the provincial auditor general’s report on the financial accountability of Alberta Health Services’ officers and admin staff, you need to work to keep your perspective.

AHS is a $12-billion-a-year operation. It employs about 100,000 people. When all that $12 billion is tax money, it’s almost impossible to totally prevent some misuse of funds.

When that $12 billion has been collected and spent by a government that hasn’t lost an election since wide plaid pants, platform shoes and huge hair were standard office attire — for men — it’s almost impossible to prevent a sense of entitlement in the top levels of its bureaucracy.

So when auditor general Merwan Saher tells us that one or two per cent of expense claims of AHS staff were out of line, perspective might tell us that’s an almost acceptable margin of error.

But that just shows why keeping perspective takes work. That margin of error involved more than $100 million, in just over one year.

You can see why AHS administrators in Edmonton might wish to fly to Calgary for a meeting, and then fly back the same day, for an average cost of about $460. That’s cheaper than driving, when you consider the cost of time lost in travel, and the cost of an overnight stay in a hotel.

That’s the perspective view. But $1,200? Who approved this?

There are a lot of other costly errors in the margins that Saher discovered, but rather than list them again, let’s apply perspectives that are not in Saher’s report.

We already know the Alberta budget is in for a squeeze. We already know that people under the care of AHS are going to see thinner staffing levels. Some pencil-pusher is going to count how many latex gloves are being used, how many adult diapers are distributed, in every one of hundreds of supply closets in the province.

That’s called accountability, and AHS front line staff are going to get a double-dose of it, beginning next March, when the budget comes down. We know that.

But if top brass needs a plush ride to a conference with politicos, they need only pick up the phone. It’s all approved. Every time. Until they get caught. And even then, standard practice is only an insincere apology away.

Saher’s report doesn’t cover that perspective. But ours should.

Here’s the perspective from another angle. Hundreds of millions of service dollars are provided by AHS to non-profits every year.

You want accountability? They get it in spades. Non-profits that do government contract work must first submit audited statements every year to their membership. They also complete complex annual reports to the federal government, in order to keep their charitable status.

If the non-profit accepts funding from a government agency — the lottery board, for instance — there’s a whole other set of reporting rules. Add yet another audited statement for other agencies, funding agencies such as United Way or the local community foundation. Everyone wants to be assured their funding is 100 per cent accountable, to be used only for their intended programs, and not for limousine rides or NHL tickets.

The cost of all this reporting can eat up huge portions of a non-profit’s non-funded revenue, because no outside funder wants their money to go to audits that cost thousands of dollars a year. Finding an auditor willing to do annual reports for a small non-profit is next to impossible — assuming the group could even afford it.

I know from experience what that’s like. It’s like volunteering to have your butt pulled through a gun barrel backwards, and examined.

Non-profits have to raise compliance and reporting cash themselves, and they squeeze salaries and cut every corner imaginable to do it.

Conference expenses, where staff could learn best practices and share information, are cut entirely.

Sometimes, even safety measures are paid for out of other budgets, because contract funders like AHS won’t cover them. Remember, non-profits work with fragile, unpredictable clients.

So when Alberta’s auditor general tells us that AHS administrators do not comply with the same accountability rules they demand of every front-line office in the province, and every non-profit service provider they contract, that’s an incendiary report.

What’s the perspective of a head that’s rolling?

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email



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