09/12/2013 12:52 EDT | Updated 11/12/2013 05:12 EST

Janet Davidson Named Deputy Minister Of Health, Watchdog John Cowell Becomes Top Health Administrator

Alberta Health Services

EDMONTON - The shakeup in Alberta's health system kept going Thursday as the province's top health watchdog was appointed to a key post.

Health Minister Fred Horne said Dr. John Cowell, who has been CEO of the Health Quality Council of Alberta, will be the official administrator of Alberta Health Services (AHS). Cowell replaces Janet Davidson, who is taking over as Alberta's new deputy minister of health.

Earlier this week the province eliminated five senior AHS executive positions.

"I don't know anyone in this province who didn't believe that Alberta Health Services wasn't a very top-heavy, very bureaucratic organization," Horne told reporters Thursday.

"If you go out and talk to frontline health care workers or people that managed the front line, it's not very difficult to find someone who can tell you a story about the difficulty they encountered in getting a basic decision made."

This week's shakeup follows a review, headed by Davidson, that found the system should focus more on supporting health-care providers. Horne said Cowell's duties will include implementing recommendations from the review as well as completing a review of AHS executive salaries.

Cowell said he supports the streamlined approach to health that the minister is taking, calling the decision to cut executive positions the "Big Bang."

"If you reduce the number of layers between those who are making the executive decisions and those who are actually grinding at the coal face on the front lines, that's how decisions become more meaningful and more responsive," Cowell said.

Davidson became AHS administrator in June when Horne fired the organization's board over its insistence that it was bound by contract to pay bonuses to its top staff. Horne said Cowell's salary will be the same as Davidson's when she held the post — $580,000 a year.

Davidson will be taking her salary to her new post. Critics say the amount is almost twice what other deputy ministers in Alberta earn.

Opposition politicians, such as NDP health critic Dave Eggen, said the salary sends a message that nothing has changed.

"Albertans have a hard time trusting the (Progressive Conservatives) when they do things like this," Eggen said. "The chaos is still there when they use the health system."

Horne said reports on Thursday that 2,500 surgeries in Edmonton were being cancelled to save money, as detailed in an AHS memo, aren't true. He said the person who wrote the document no longer works for the service. Cowell said cancelling surgeries had been considered and dismissed as an option.

Horne acknowledged there may be people in the health system who are upset with leadership changes and he suggested the person who wrote the memo could be one of them.

"In any change like the change that we are leading in Alberta, you're going to have a few people who don't like the change."

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