06/14/2013 04:26 EDT | Updated 08/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Alberta Health Services Board Bonuses: Horne Wants Quick End

CP/ Bill Graveland

EDMONTON - Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne says he wants a quick end to a dispute over $3.2 million in bonus payments to 99 health executives.

"We want to bring this to a resolution as quickly as we can," Horne said Friday at a news conference held to introduce Janet Davidson as the new administrator of Alberta Health Services.

Horne conceded the dispute has become "a bit of a legal quagmire" given that the former board of Alberta Health Services, or AHS, authorized the money be paid.

On Tuesday, Horne directed the 10-member board to cancel the bonuses because they were out of step with the province's tight budget.

When the board refused — citing the sanctity of signed contracts and pointing out that the money was for the fiscal year already ended —Horne fired all it members and replaced them with Davidson.

He said Davidson is to give him options on the bonus payouts, but Davidson said she is still getting up to speed.

"I need to really familiarize myself with all the background on this," she said.

Davidson will be paid $580,000 in her new role. She replaces the board for an indefinite period until — and if — Horne appoints a new board. Horne said that's still up for discussion.

Davidson has more than 30 years in hospital and health-care management following a career as a nurse and a worker on the front lines dealing with AIDS and malaria patients in Africa.

In 2006, she was named to the Order of Canada, in part for her work helping transform the Canadian Red Cross.

Horne said Davidson's role will be helping him reorganize Alberta Health Services, but he cautioned that they will be reforming the system, not tossing everything out and starting over.

"This is not an exercise to revamp the health-care system from the ground up. We've been down that road before."

Davidson said she won't trip over the roles and responsibilities of AHS CEO Dr. Chris Eagle.

"When I talk about working with Chris and giving advice as required, that does not mean getting in and running the organization. That's not the role of governance," said Davidson.

"But that doesn't mean governance does not have a role in providing strategic advice and strategic oversight — and that's what I think is absolutely critically important."

AHS is an arm's-length agency of 100,000 employees tasked by Alberta Health to deliver day-to-day care. It was created in 2008 to centralize all the work of Alberta's then-nine health regions and three agencies.

A government task force review of AHS released Wednesday by Horne makes clear that five years later, a lot of work still needs to be done.

The report says the superboard is a good idea in theory but has been poorly executed.

It said the amalgamation was too much too quickly and the result has been long-standing questions of who is in charge of what, resulting in costly duplication and substandard outcomes.

"Decision-making remains too centralized, reporting relationships are not clear and delegation of authority is not broad enough," read one of the report's findings.

The document was ordered by Horne last summer and delivered to government by year's end. But it was never released until outgoing AHS chairman Stephen Lockwood suggested Tuesday that the province was deliberately keeping it, and its critical comments, under wraps.

Horne released the report a day later, just minutes before publicly announcing he was firing the board.

Horne said Friday that the report was never deliberately kept hidden, but was to be released after his team had had a chance to discuss it further.

"The intent was never to withhold it."

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman labelled it a cynical political exercise.

“The minister sat on a controversial report until he could release it at a time when he thought nobody would notice,” said Sherman.

“It was only when Mr. Lockwood spoke publicly of its existence that Horne was forced to act, but he did so in the most disingenuous and secretive manner.”

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