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Never mind the cookie ... Alberta Health Services and former CEO parted by mutual agreement

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Stephen Duckett waves farewell

This just in: Stephen Duckett wasn't fired for the Notorious Cookie Incident™. It was just, you know … irreconcilable differences?

Well, it's true, I guess. The former president and CEO of the Alberta Health Services bureaucratic behemoth wasn't really fired for his Monty Python moment with a cookie on Nov. 19, 2010. The famously undiplomatic Australian PhD health care economist was fired for becoming a lightning rod for voter dissatisfaction with the Alberta government's epic mishandling of the health care file throughout 2009 and 2010.

Now it turns out -- late on the Friday before a long weekend, the traditional time for governments to release uncomfortable news with a minimum of fuss -- that Duckett and the AHS signed an agreement a few days after the Cookie Incident in which they "mutually agree" to end their employment contract.

Given the timing of the news release -- the deal was inked on Nov. 24, 2010, to be precise -- perhaps we can surmise that the province had word it was about to be leaked to the media anyway.

Regardless of that speculation, it was quite a good deal for Duckett, who is now working as an instructor in his wife's department at the University of Alberta. According to the health board's highly informative four-sentence statement, he was paid "$661,250 in severance pay and loss of benefits; $54,380 in variable pay (pay-at-risk) to which he was entitled for his period of employment in 2010; and $20,000 in settlement of all other potential or contingent liabilities."

That adds up to $735,630, in case you have trouble with arithmetic and since AHS didn't help out by adding up the sums.

The release goes on: "No further payments will be made under the terms of the agreement, which was concluded earlier this month. No further action by either party is contemplated."

In other words, Duckett's been paid the money. End of story. Nothing much more will be said about this matter, one presumes.

To its credit, the Edmonton Journal managed to track down AHS Chair Ken Hughes, who had this to say: "Dr. Duckett wouldn't have chosen to leave the position if the board hadn't asked him to."

So, if the board asked him to quit, and he didn't want to, how was this not a firing, again? It's hard to imagine that the Journal's intrepid reporter not asking that question, so presumably Hughes didn't provide an answer.

Hughes did, however, take pains to point out that the payout is really quite a good deal for Alberta taxpayers. "This is an improvement in terms of value for Alberta taxpayers," he told the Journal. "It's much more modest than previous agreements, obviously."

You see, we taxpayers had to pay millions to those ones… (Capital Health Region CEO Sheila Weatherill was paid out $3.4 million. Calgary Health Region CEO Jack Davis got $5.7 million.) So, I guess by that measure, it was a good deal. Sort of.

Now, this is not really a sterling recommendation for the Conservatives' management of the health care file, but we've all seen the latest poll, so presumably Premier Ed Stelmach and no one else is going to wear this one.

As for Duckett, apparently he was nowhere to be found. Perhaps the story will be updated with his comments a little later.

Even if it isn't, there's no reason to expect Duckett to be any shyer about embarrassing the government than he has been since he left his post at the helm of AHS. On May 5, for example, he ignited a firestorm in the media when word somehow leaked that he had told a medical conference in Toronto that before his arrival "discreet waiting list adjustments" at the request of Tory MLAs were routine.

Significantly, the deal released yesterday includes a provision that "nothing in this Agreement shall be construed so as to preclude Dr. Duckett from giving evidence in any legal action or inquiry into health care in Alberta established or authorized by the legislature or the government of Alberta."

However, with the Progressive Conservative government once again riding high in the polls, don't hold your breath waiting for a judicial inquiry.

Nevertheless, for months Duckett has been widely rumoured to be writing a book on the Alberta health-care system and his role as its leader, so while it may be true in the legal sense that "no further action by either party is contemplated," this is probably too much for this government or the next one to hope for in the ordinary sense of the words.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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