Local Alberta Health Services board member Gord Bontje resigned his position on Wednesday, protesting the departure of Dr. Stephen Duckett.
Bontje announced his resignation after the Alberta Health Services board and Duckett, who was the president and chief executive officer of Alberta Health Services, agreed to part ways.
“The termination of Stephen Duckett is not in the best interests of health care for Albertans.
“Stephen Duckett undertook the task of rebuilding a health-care system for Albertans intelligently and passionately. In spite of uninformed criticism he never wavered from this,” said Bontje, in his resignation letter.
Bontje, a Red Deer builder and former chairman of the Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division board, was the only member from Central Alberta who was appointed to the Alberta Health Services board two and a half years ago.
Bontje said, in an interview with the Red Deer Advocate on Wednesday afternoon, that he doesn’t know what Duckett’s departure will mean for the work of the Alberta Health Services board, but he fears the momentum will be lost.
Bontje said Dr. Duckett wasn’t perfect, but he had a wonderful vision.
He said the Alberta Health Services board was making a positive difference and Duckett was making excellent progress at accomplishing his goals, with health care being a hugely complex issue, with problems that are deep-seated, complex and difficult to solve.
Duckett has recently been criticized by doctors and patients for long emergency-room waits and most recently the public was outraged after Duckett told reporters attempting to ask questions that he was too busy eating a cookie to answer their queries.
“(Dr. Duckett) was tired. It was a Friday afternoon and the guy was under a huge amount of stress…,” Bontje said. “I can’t say what he was thinking. I don’t want to try to interpret it. It was an unfortunate incident, but you can’t judge his performance as the CEO of a huge organization by two minutes on a Friday afternoon.”
Premier Ed Stelmach has called the cookie comments offensive. During a press conference on Wednesday, Alberta Health Services board chair Ken Hughes wouldn’t say he was directed by the provincial government to terminate Duckett, but Hughes did say he spoke with Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky and “his directions were clear.”
Brenda Corney, chairperson of the Red Deer Chapter of Friends of Medicare, said if the board and Duckett came to an agreement she hopes it wasn’t just over the cookie comments.
“I think they need to look at long-term care, as far as how Alberta Health Services has functioned since it was formed, and the policies and things that he put into place,” she said. “I think that in a lot of ways, in my opinion, Stephen Duckett was the fall guy for the government.”
Corney said while she doesn’t particularly respect Duckett, he was put into a very difficult position because he was brought to Alberta from Australia and told what his job would be, he started to get backlash and then the Alberta government changed direction. She said she is sure his plans were always in flux because of the provincial government.
Corney said Duckett needs to be replaced by somebody who knows something about health care.
“They stacked the board with business people that don’t know about health care. They brought Duckett from Australia. He didn’t know anything about Canadian health care and he certainly didn’t know the pit he was getting in when he tried to screw around with it either,” she said.
She said Alberta Health Services needs a leader with some vision for health care — someone who can make publicly-funded, publicly-administered health care work, which Corney said is possible if so much money isn’t spent on administrators.
Hughes didn’t confirm what Duckett’s severance will be, but Duckett’s contract suggests that if he was fired without cause he would receive around $700,000 — which would be made up of one year’s salary, 15 per cent of his salary in lieu of other benefits and moving expenses back to Australia.
“A lot of our health care is going to this administrative stuff and it’s not going to the frontline where it is really needed. So we need some genuine leadership here and that leadership needs to come from the government,” Corney said.