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The way the cookie crumbled: Health minister fires chair, entire Alberta Health Services board

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Fred Horne

As Stephen Duckett, once the CEO of Alberta Health Services, might have said to Stephen Lockwood, who until yesterday morning was the chair of the AHS Board: "Well, that's the way the cookie crumbles."

Duckett and Lockwood both met sudden ends as senior officials of the Alberta health care system when Alberta’s often-arbitrary Progressive Conservative government began to view them as more of an impediment than an aide to its plans.

As alert readers will recall, the putative cause for Duckett's dismissal in November 2010 was the fact he was rude to a reporter while eating an oatmeal-raisin cookie. The real reason, of course, was that the Australian PhD economist had become a lightning rod for public dissatisfaction with the massive provincial health board the government of then-premier Ed Stelmach had created two years before.

In fairness to the PCs, Premier Alison Redford's health minister, Fred Horne, had a marginally better case for firing Lockwood, who was openly defiant in his refusal to do the government's bidding and halt the embarrassing payments of bonuses to 99 top AHS executives.

Lockwood was obviously operating under the illusion the government meant what it said when it told him the board of AHS was independent. Well, now he knows how things really work in Alberta!

Horne certainly seemed to act decisively, canning not only the rebellious board chair, a hard-ass trucking executive from Calgary who wasn't used to back chat from mere ministers of the Crown, but the entire 10-member AHS board.

He did it within five minutes of the start of his 9:30 press conference called for the purpose, and less than 12 hours after Mr. Lockwood's defiance became clear to everyone in the province.

Horne immediately appointed Janet Davidson, a former deputy minister unknown to the public, as Official Administrator of the board's affairs -- and there's a strong whiff in the air of the possibility the government will never again appoint a board to run the affairs of AHS.

However, it seems likely the act was more thoroughly and carefully premeditated than yesterday's political choreography suggests.

Just for starters, Davidson didn't just happen to stroll through Horne's office door Monday afternoon and say, well, sure, she'd be prepared to take over by the end of the week.

Plus, there were those five mysterious -- and mysteriously unspecified -- acts of defiance by Lockwood that were noted in the minister's press release. More than one of us, I suspect, would love to know just what commands Lockwood chose to disobey.

So, no, this wasn't quite as spontaneous a development as we have been led to believe.

Regardless, as was argued in this blog yesterday, there is no way Horne is going to escape this imbroglio without a certain amount of egg on his face.

He looks like a flip-flopper of dubious judgment, having appointed Lockwood with high praise less than 10 months before and made public statements in March suggesting that while he didn't like the board’s plan to pay $3.2 million in bonuses to the execs, he would go along with it.

But he won't look weak to the public -- which, in the world of conservative politics is an even graver sin than flip-floppery. And who knows, this may very well play in Ponoka, the Albertan equivalent of Peoria.

Anyway, given Lockwood's persistent defiance, once Horne had publicly given him his marching orders, the government really had no choice but to make him walk the plank when he declined to obey them.

Presumably Lockwood understood this and reckoned that outcome worked for him -- his determination to stand up to the government certainly won't harm his reputation in Alberta’s business and legal communities.

Horne and the government will now just have to live with the embarrassment of having fired a guy who is claimed to have just saved AHS $100 million and who less than a year ago they were touting as the best thing ever to happen to health care in Alberta since they hired … erm, Stephen Duckett.

Moreover, the minister will also have to get used to the fact there's now nothing at all standing between his government and what happens in the health care system, which is bound to be controversial and unpopular with many voters no matter what he does next.

Case in point, in an attempt to reassure the public all is well despite the drama, Horne stated that "nothing about today's decision changes the normal delivery of health care in Alberta."

Indeed, he went on, "hospitals and other care facilities continue with normal operations. The changes we announce today are unlikely to be noticed by most people."

AHS management, meanwhile, presumably backed by the former board, which included nary a representative of the public interest, has been pushing "workforce transformation" that to date has involved the elimination of well over 200 Registered Nurse and Licensed Practical Nurse positions and their replacement by unskilled health care aides.

This is not likely to reassure Albertans worried about the quality of health care they might receive if they require it, unless Horne means to say that the cuts to skilled nursing staff are about to stop.

The last time the situation in heath care seemed this chaotic and confusing here in Alberta, premier Stelmach shuffled Ron Liepert, the bull-in-a-china-shop health minister of the day, to another portfolio and replaced him with Gene Zwozdesky, the velvet-voiced old crooner of the PC caucus.

Horne played a key role in this calming effort, promoted by the premier to Parliamentary Assistant for Health, which turned out to be a stepping stone to his current position.

Alas, Horne is now on the hot seat and Zwozdesky is no longer available, having been rewarded for his good service last time by being made the Speaker of the House.

No one in the Redford Government caucus springs to mind with natural diplomatic skills to match Zwozdesky's.

So for the time being AHS will likely shuffle along from disaster to catastrophe, erratically led, its problems exacerbated by the dysfunctional corporate model imposed on public health care back when Ralph Klein was premier of Alberta.

It's hard to imagine how this can end well for Redford, Horne and the PC Party. Or, for that matter, for most of the rest of us!

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

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