EDMONTON — The Opposition Wildrose party says for more than a year Alberta Health Services billed taxpayers $460,000 daily for consultants.
But Health Minister Fred Horne says most of it was related to creating the health superboard in 2008.
Wildrose released documents it obtained under freedom-of-information rules for more than 500 consulting contracts to AHS over an 18-month period that ended last September.
“They’re symbolic of the culture of waste that is alive and well in Alberta Health Services,” said Wildrose health critic Heather Forsyth. “The front-line health workers . . . continue to be starved for the resources while rich contracts are handed out to high-priced consultants for things like improving Alberta Health Services’ public image.”
AHS is responsible for day-to-day front-line care while Horne and his Health Department oversee the entire system and develop policy.
Forsyth said the data is disturbing given the Canadian Institute of Health Information reported last week that Alberta’s 85-day wait time for lung cancer surgery is the longest in the nation.
“With this kind of waste in the system it’s no wonder why,” she said.
The data revealed $27,000 was spent for a report on how Alberta Health Services could buff up its image.
There was $443,000 for a “unified communications project” and almost $13,000 for art consultation.
About $300,000 was spent on advice to recruit a chief financial officer.
More than $600,000 was spent on executive coaching.
More than $400,000 was spent on recruiting and budgeting consultations.
There was $70,000 for conflict mediation.
Wildrose finance critic Rob Anderson said three-quarters of the money, about $350,000 a day, went to IT consultants.
Anderson said he’s not alleging all the contracts were frivolous, but when $350,000 is spent every single day merely on IT consulting, I think it’s reasonable to ask if taxpayers are getting good value for money.“
Horne says while he has questions on some of the expenses, the IT money was necessary to get the superboard created.
“It is a lot of money, but AHS is also a $13-billion organization,” said Horne.
“When you take a look at what the actual contracts are for, the majority are for specialized services that involved the setup of the organization.”
Colleen Turner, vice-president in charge of communications for AHS, agreed.
She said the IT contracts have been ongoing for years and include not just consulting but also for hands-on work.
“It’s actually people on the ground who are doing things like software programming, who are building interfaces, doing the actual integration and testing,” Turner said in an interview.
“In those cases we decided that it didn’t make sense to staff up in terms of having them be AHS employees, but rather we made the decision to contract it out.”
She said that by the end of 2013, AHS had just $48 million in active contracts.
“There has been a push to reduce the amounts of the contract dollars and the number of outside consultant contracts, but the reality is that there is always going to be a need in some cases to have consultants,” she said.
Anderson noted $3 million was spent on communications and marketing consultation, including money to teach Alberta Health Services staffers how best to talk to their employer, the Alberta government.
Turner responded by saying, “We rarely contract out for communications advice and if you looked at our books right now there are actually no current contracts for communications or consultant-type work.”
Turner said she did not know the specifics of the art consulting contract.
AHS is Alberta’s largest single employer, with more than 100,000 employees and an annual payroll more than $7 billion.