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Lawrie McFarlane: Politics to blame for endless chaos in Alberta health system

The CEO of Alberta Health Services has left or been fired, and some believe it's an effort by Alberta ­Premier Jason Kenney to placate the extreme right wing of his United Conservative Party, which disliked her strong advocacy of COVID mask ­mandates, writes Lawrie McFarlane. Larry MacDougal, The Canadian Press

Alberta’s shambolic health-care system is once again in flux. The CEO of Alberta Health Services, the agency that manages a large part of that province’s health care, is gone.

Dr. Verna Yiu, a well regarded ­kidney-disease specialist, has quit, resigned, left or been fired, depending on who you listen to. NDP health critic David ­Shepherd says Yiu was fired because she was targeted by the extreme right wing of Alberta’s governing United ­Conservative Party.

Apparently, Yiu was unpopular in rural circles for her strong advocacy of COVID mask mandates, a stance UCP MLA Dan Williams likened to holding “a knife to the throat” of remote communities.

The thinking behind this scenario is that Premier Jason Kenney, who’s ­currently undergoing a hostile leadership review, wanted to placate his party’s right wing.

Whatever the real story may be, Yiu is only the last in a string of CEOs at Alberta Health Services to leave early.

When AHS was first set up in 2008 (more of that in a moment), the first CEO, Dr. Stephen Duckett, lasted a bare 18 months. He was dismissed supposedly for refusing to answer a reporter’s ­question because he was “eating a cookie.”

He brandished the offending ­comestible to make his point.

Duckett’s own version was that he had been told not to answer politically ­oriented media inquiries. Three board members followed him out the door, protesting political interference in the board’s activities.

Duckett was replaced by Dr. Chris Eagle, who left after three years. He was followed by Vickie Kaminski, who was gone after 18 months.

Then followed Verna Yiu, now also departed.

This revolving-door approach to ­managing has dogged the province’s health-care system.

In the early 1990s, then-premier Ralph Klein abolished some 250 hospital, ­long-term care and public-health boards, replacing them with 17 regional health authorities.

This made some kind of sense. In a time of intense budget cutting, few if any of these small independent agencies had the in-house expertise to achieve the required economies. B.C. adopted a ­similar model, as did most other ­provinces.

In 2004, those 17 boards were reduced to nine. Again, this made a degree of sense. It was asking a lot of 17 separate health authorities to manage the ­significant downsizing then underway.

However, in 2008, the province blew up all nine boards and replaced them with one single authority, Alberta Health ­Services. And this made no sense.

The point of regionalization was to maintain some degree of sensitivity to the differing needs of urban and rural ­communities. This important function was lost by consolidating the entire ­delivery system in just one set of hands.

Moreover, if you’re going to centralize operations in this way, why not just dump them in the Health Ministry? As it is, you have two competing bureaucracies with roughly similar mandates, constantly vying for supremacy.

And it didn’t end there.

At the outset, the province’s hospital labs were in public hands. Then some were privatized. Then brought back into public hands. Then privatized again.

Adding to the disarray, in 2013, the health minister fired the entire board of Alberta Health Services, and appointed an administrator. Five senior executives were then dismissed. Six months later, that administrator was replaced. Two more followed in rapid succession.

In this manner, a succession of Alberta governments brought the province’s health-care system to its knees.

Moreover, the motivation for these ­constant changes was entirely ­political. No respectable rationale was ever ­presented for the endless pandemonium imposed upon the system.

If you’re wondering why Kenney has the worst approval rating among the premiers for his handling of the COVID crisis, look no further.