02/12/2013 01:59 EST | Updated 04/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Alberta Auditor General Says Health Executives Need To Monitor Travel Spending Better

EDMONTON - Alberta's auditor general says taxpayers have been paying for health bureaucrats to take $1,200 short-hop flights, shelling out up to $300 at a time to shuttle patients around in taxis and covering one health employee's costs to buzz about in a private plane.

Merwan Saher said Alberta Health Services, also known as AHS, has to do a better job of monitoring expenses and educating staff about what should and should not be charged to the public purse.

"It (AHS) has work to do," Saher said after his report was released Tuesday.

"An effective control framework ensures that public servants do not subsidize the government or reward themselves at public expense."

Saher's audit, done over 17 months ending last August, found that $100 million was spent on travel, hosting, moving and other purchasing by AHS.

Story continues after slideshow

Outrageous Alberta Health Expenses

That's a drop in the bucket, he said, for an organization with 100,000 people — enough to fill both Edmonton's Commonwealth and Calgary's McMahon football stadiums.

But Saher added that better controls would "help(s) reduce reputational risk to AHS and promote an overall proper control environment."

He said less than one per cent of spending involved senior staff; $60 million involved employees in the lower ranks.

Among his findings was the case of a staffer who took a private plane to an appointment.

"There was no explanation of why the person did not take a commercial flight. Nor was there an explanation about how the rate charged for the plane was found to be competitive."

Among other findings:

— The average cost for health workers to fly from Edmonton to Calgary was $457, yet some tickets cost up to $1,206 for the short-hop flights.

— AHS wrongly paid out more than $4,000 for photo radar tickets to emergency vehicle drivers who were not heading to an assignment that would require them to speed.

— One health facility shuttled patients around in taxis, with some fares exceeding $300, based on back of the napkin calculations that it would be cheaper.

— One employee relocating to a new home went over the normal seven per cent maximum on real estate fees and charged taxpayers the entire $116,000.

— Some employees have a $900,000 limit on company purchasing cards with no research on whether this is the best way to pay.

— Two major service providers were allowed not to submit expense receipts but instead agreed to pay a percentage of their overall fees for a total of $6.1 million.

— A long-term care home bought season's tickets to the Calgary Flames and sold individual game tickets back to residents. That meant the volunteer who went with the resident saw NHL hockey for free on the taxpayers' dime.

Saher's audit was done at the request of Health Minister Fred Horne, who said he wanted to make sure the public is getting the most for its money.

"Albertans expect that the public service, including their public health system, respects the hard work that is behind every public dollar. Our government expects that, too," said Horne in a news release.

AHS, which is the service arm of the Alberta Health Department, has already begun implementing recommendations to tighten up expense monitoring, he said.

"Alberta Health Services is putting safeguards in place that will make sure expense and travel claims are appropriate and handled with a high level of transparency and accountability."

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said he's still skeptical.

"Where are the regular checks and balances?" he asked rhetorically at a news conference.

"I'm not comfortable or reassured by the government's response whatsoever."

Spending by Alberta health bureaucrats has been under the microscope for months.

Last year, it was revealed that former AHS financial officer Allaudin Merali, while working for Edmonton's now-defunct Capital Health Region, charged taxpayers almost $370,000 for pricey restaurant meals, to fix his Mercedes Benz and to hire a butler.

Merali later issued a news release saying he was just doing his job, that he funded some of hosting costs out of his own pocket and that, if anything, he didn't charge enough.

Also in Tuesday's report, Saher said Finance Minister Doug Horner did not break his government's own law by delivering a bare bones first-quarter budget update last August.

Saher began investigating after Horner issued the report without basics such as a balance sheet.

That was the update in which Albertans learned that the projected budget deficit for this year would be in the range of $3 billion — more than three times what was first predicted.

Opponents said the update was nothing more than a brochure and violated Alberta's law to keep citizens informed on what's happening with their money.

Saher said the Government Accountability Act is written so broadly it allows for generous interpretation on how to deliver fiscal information.