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New board in. CEO out … just another day at Alberta Health Services!

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Vickie Kaminski

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If you expected yesterday's health care news merely to be the resumption of board governance at Alberta Health Services, you had a surprise coming. Oh, the board came back in yesterday, alright, but as it did, AHS President and CEO Vickie Kaminski went flying out the door!

Everyone was extremely polite about the sudden conclusion to Kaminski’s brief tenure at the top of Alberta’s massive health care agency, but it’s been pretty clear for a while she and Premier Rachel Notley's NDP Government were not singing from the same song sheet.

"I have sincerely enjoyed working at AHS since I joined the organization," the former registered nurse and senior Newfoundland health bureaucrat said rather stiffly in her letter of resignation, handed out to media yesterday. "This is a personal decision for me and I will support the board during the transition period."

"I want to thank Vickie for the passion she brought to her role at Alberta Health Services," said Health Minister Sarah Hoffman in a terse prepared statement, quoted in its entirety in this paragraph. "I appreciate the range of experience Vickie brought to the table, from her work as a front-line nurse, to hospital administrator, and then as CEO. Vickie has been committed to health care for many years, and I wish her nothing but the best as she moves ahead to new opportunities."

"I am sorry to see Vickie leave AHS and I appreciate this must have been a difficult decision for her," said AHS Board Chair Linda Hughes, her first official act on her first day on the job. "Vickie is well respected across the country as a health care leader and I want to acknowledge her commitment to the success of AHS and for her service to Albertans."

In other words, so sad to see you go … can I hand you your hat? And by the way, don’t let the revolving door knock you off your feet on the way out.

Kaminski was appointed to a three-year term at a salary of $540,000 a year at the start of June, 2014, during the short interregnum led by Progressive Conservative premier pro tempore Dave Hancock, who had been chosen to replace the catastrophic Alison Redford while the doomed search proceeded for a political saviour for Alberta’s 44-year PC dynasty.

Before that, she was the president and CEO of Newfoundland's Eastern Regional Health Authority.

Fred Horne, who was health minister during the tense Redford years and continued in that job under Hancock, made the announcement and pretty obviously had a hand in her selection. She was hired at a time when the relationship between the Alberta government and health care and other public employees was fraught, to say the least, with unconstitutional legislation on the books attacking the principles of collective bargaining and a drive under way to undermine public sector pensions.

Jim Prentice, the former federal cabinet minister chosen by Tories in September 2014 to lead them out of the wilderness turned out to have misplaced his compass. He repealed the most unpopular legislation, but the effect was a day late and a dollar short. On May 5, Notley's NDP majority government was elected.

Since then, cracks have been increasingly apparent in the relationship between the government and the executive suite of AHS. Kaminski missed high-profile government events; Hoffman pulled the plug on a $3-billion plan to contract out Edmonton-area medical lab testing to a for-profit Australian corporation, dismissing it as an "experiment with people's health and well-being."

Kaminski's leadership style at times was controversial as well. In mid-October, her public statement that 48 employees at the South Health Campus in Calgary had been found to have inappropriately accessed a patient's information and that the employees faced serious discipline as a result, caused an uproar.

United Nurses of Alberta, the province's registered nurses' union, vigorously disputed the conclusions reached by AHS and vowed to seek redress for its members who had been impacted by what it called publication of confidential personnel matters that was illegal under provincial privacy law.

The official departure of Kaminski in January will mean the start of the search for the eighth Alberta Health Services CEO since the cabinet of PC premier Ed Stelmach cooked up the scheme to amalgamate the province’s health regions into a single corporate entity in one afternoon in 2008. Under her contract, she will receive no severance.

Second on that impressive list of CEOs, by the way, was Stephen Duckett, the Australian Cookie King, supposedly fired by Stelmach's government in the fall of 2010 for rudely refusing to speak to a reporter because he was eating a cookie. That story crumbles when one considers the fact Duckett had become the lightning rod for popular dissatisfaction with AHS, and hence a growing embarrassment to the Tories.

Don't take my word for that one-afternoon tidbit, by the way. It comes straight from he lips of Calgary-Signal Hill MP Ron Liepert, and he should know because he was Stelmach's health minister at the time.

Since then, AHS has also seen a stream of Official Administrators -- single-human "boards" hired to replace the last AHS board that was fired in 2013 by Horne for refusing to obey his order to break legal contracts to pay senior administrators bonuses that had become a political embarrassment to the Redford Government. In the end, AHS had to pay up anyway.

In other words, governance of AHS has been a gong show pretty well since the entity was created. One can only hope yesterday's changes under the NDP will finally usher in a period of stability in leadership.

While opposition politicians did their best yesterday to give the impression this is not possible -- the Wildrose Party in the service of its crazy scheme to break the entire system up into single-hospital boards, a recipe for chaos and privatization -- that is not necessarily so.

Hoffman has emerged as possibly the most capable minister in Notley's cabinet, so if the NDP government can make this tall order come true, she is probably the minister most likely to do it.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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