Fired for lack of results

Whatever you think of the state of Alberta’s health care system, you have to respect the principled resignation of Red Deer’s Gord Bontje, who left the health superboard in protest of the firing of its CEO Stephen Duckett.

Whatever you think of the state of Alberta’s health care system, you have to respect the principled resignation of Red Deer’s Gord Bontje, who left the health superboard in protest of the firing of its CEO Stephen Duckett.

“Stephen Duckett undertook the task of rebuilding a health care system for Albertans intelligently and passionately,” Bontje wrote in his resignation letter. “In spite of uninformed criticism he never wavered from this.”

Bontje worried further in an interview with the Advocate that momentum would be lost in the changes Duckett and the AHS board were making in health care. He said Duckett was making “excellent progress” at accomplishing his goals.

If all that is true, then the criticism of Duckett truly has been uninformed. Unfortunately, we are uninformed by Duckett himself, and by the AHS board.

What, exactly, was this “excellent progress” that Albertans have been looking for? There haven’t been a lot of success stories from the AHS or the government telling us about strides being made either to control the rising costs of health care, to improve accessibility, or to maintain care standards.

Quite the opposite. Among Duckett’s first accomplishments were the closing of Alberta Hospital, and a hiring freeze on medical staff, despite widely acknowledged staffing shortages.

That first accomplishment was negated by the health minister, who redesignated a new long-term geriatric care facility into a hospital for psychiatric patients — at a cost of millions. The second decision cost millions more in overtime and work-stress costs for nursing on wards with too few staff, plus the draining of a couple years’ worth of nursing graduates to other provinces because of a lack of job opportunities here.

If the AHS board indeed had a plan and was making progress, far too little of it was shared with Albertans paying the bills.

Looking back, perhaps that was mere oversight, but that, more than comments on cookies, explains why Duckett ended up with so few supporters and no longer had any leadership capital to spend on hard decisions.

That applies to Albertans unhappy with the way their health care is being managed, to the health minister who listens to complaints, and even the board itself, which had the most knowledge of all about the situation.

It isn’t a flippant remark about not being able to talk to reporters because you’re eating a cookie that gets you fired. That is easily smoothed over with an apology and a frank 15-minute interview to answer some questions.

Here’s what gets the CEO of Alberta Health Services fired: long wait times in emergency wards in hospitals that don’t have enough active treatment beds, because they have too many elderly patients on the roster, who can’t get a far cheaper long-term care bed. It’s the deep resentment of thousands of front-line health workers who see the problems on the job every day — including one MLA who’s a practising emergency room doctor.

Nor is there any help in a news story of an Edmonton woman being denied coverage for a cancer drug that costs $4,000 a month for as long as the patient survives. Not while we know that if Duckett gets full severance (and who doubts that?) the tab for that alone would pay for 175 months of treatment for this woman — perhaps more.

We truly wish that Bontje is correct — that this firing is unjustified and could indeed hurt the momentum of progress of improvements to health care.

But from here, we don’t have the evidence to convince us of that.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.