With a record like his, how could Alberta Health Services Chair Ken Hughes not run for office?

Ken Hughes on the night of Alison Redford’s victory. No idea what that passerby is looking at. Your blogger, perhaps. Behind her, former health minister Gene Zwozdesky tries to butter up Calgary Sun columnist Rick “Not The Dinger Any More” Bell.

Well, of course he’s running for office.

With a record like his, how could he not?

I refer, of course, to Ken Hughes, the first and so far the only chair of Alberta Health Services, the massive province-wide health board created in May 2008 to … well, it’s never really been all that clear just what AHS was supposed to do.

AHS has managed, one supposes, to realize a few economies of scale – especially among traditionally overpaid top health region executive positions – but at the cost of some pretty fantastic dis-economies of scale.

From the moment the Alberta Tories under then-premier Ed Stelmach and then-health-minister Ron Liepert announced their decision to roll Alberta’s nine regions plus the Alberta Cancer Board, the addictions commission and the mental health board into a single entity, saving money was said to be the reason. But, as far as anyone knows, precious little money has ever actually been saved as a result.

However, that’s the government’s story, and they’re stickin’ to it. As Premier Alison Redford’s current health minister, Fred Horne, said today in a carefully phrased news release announcing Mr. Hughes’s imminent departure as the chair of the health board, “Ken’s leadership helped AHS to deliver solid results, including over $660 million in administrative savings that has since been reinvested in patient care.”

The real reason for the creation of AHS was likely quite different from saving money. But since no one in a position to know has actually said, Albertans have been left to deduce that the desire to break the political power of the Calgary Health Region’s sometimes outspoken leadership, the need to be seen to be doing something, and the urge to mess up health care delivery just enough to open the door to privatization all played a role in creating the AHS fiasco.

Instead of savings we got a crisis in Emergency Room wait times, acute care beds full of patients who needed to be in continuing care, continued efforts to privatize long-term care and no respite from the shortage of health care professionals that dates back to policy errors committed under Mr. Stelmach’s predecessor as premier, Ralph Klein.

The main burden of responsibility, of course, must rest on the shoulders of Mr. Liepert and former premier Stelmach, but surely as their chief flunky at what was back in 2008 quaintly known as the “health superboard,” Mr. Hughes must shoulder some of the blame.

One waits with interest to hear what Stephen Duckett, the Australian PhD economist who was hired a year after Mr. Hughes to be chief executive officer under the chair’s supervision, will have to say about Mr. Hughes’s leadership. Dr. Duckett, of course, seems to have been hired in part because he was acerbic and undiplomatic, then in November 2010 was fired because he was acerbic and undiplomatic, and has now carved out a niche for himself as an acerbic commentator on Alberta health care matters.

Mr. Hughes must accept some of the blame for that unpopular decision as well, one presumes.

Regardless, we are now informed by the Edmonton Journal that Mr. Hughes will likely seek the PC nomination in Calgary-West, a piece of provincial real estate that occupies the same territory as notorious Conservative MP Rob Anders’s federal riding. It is also the Alberta electoral district now occupied by Mr. Liepert, who to everyone’s astonishment remains in Ms. Redford’s cabinet. However, Mr. Liepert has signalled his intention not to run again in 2012, or whenever Premier Redford decides to call an election under her recently passed unfixed-fixed-election-date law.

Mr. Hughes is not a stranger to politics. Before his career in health, he enjoyed an undistinguished career as a federal Conservative MP from southern Alberta, and before that as an insurance salesman.

This fall, Mr. Hughes took a leave of absence from the helm of AHS to serve on Premier Redford’s transition team. Given all that, it is likely that he hopes to become Ms. Redford’s health minister after what the government presumably assumes will be the triumph of the next election.

If so, or even if he just resides in cabinet in some other influential post, don’t expect to see meaningful change to fix the many problems with the single health board model.

It has been argued in this space that what Alberta really needs is a return to health regions, a structure that sensibly balances economies of scale with unique regional needs. This is because different blends of health services for different regional populations makes sense, delivering better service at a lower cost and responding more quickly to changing needs. This is why, of course, health regions remain the favoured way to deliver health services elsewhere in Canada.

A centralized province-wide board, by contrast, simply can’t respond as effectively as a region could. Emergency Room problems in Lethbridge, Grande Prairie or Red Deer don’t get addressed because we’re busy in Edmonton working on a provincial admissions policy. Even needed short-term solutions, such as opening more continuing care beds to ease the crunch in emergency departments, take longer when they must be solved by a bloated centralized bureaucracy like AHS.

Not so many years ago – before Mr. Stelmach, Mr. Liepert, Dr. Duckett and, of course, Mr. Hughes made their vision of a new health care model for Alberta a reality – we offered world-class medical services to residents of this province.

It will take something more than Mr. Hughes occupying a chair in Ms. Redford’s next cabinet to make that a reality again.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

11 Comments on "With a record like his, how could Alberta Health Services Chair Ken Hughes not run for office?"

  1. Anonymous says:

    Is this deja vu all over again? Ken Hughes ran for the provincial PC nomination in Calgary West back in '86 but lost to Elaine McCoy.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Actually, the provincial Calgary West constituency is entirely located in Rob Anders' riding.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Don't be surprised if Ron Liepert gets appointed as Alberta's Representative in Waskington, DC. First, after only serving seven years, Liepert's MLA Departure package won't be enough to retire on. As well, he isn't the most liked in this province so jobs so a steady paying gig is not guaranteed in the private sector.
    Redford might attempt to justify his appointment as he is aware of the XL Keystone file and was Alberta's trade rep in Los Angeles from 1986 to 1991.

  4. David Harrigan says:

    "Duckett, of course, seems to have been hired in part because he was acerbic and undiplomatic, was fired because he was acerbic and undiplomatic, and has now carved out a niche for himself as an acerbic commentator on Alberta health care matters."


    But –
    "One waits with interest to hear what Stephen Duckett, will have to say about Hughes's leadership"

    One, might, but I assure you not this one

  5. workeradvocate says:

    The real issue is electing the same old political record and same old practices just with a bunch of different 'hacks'. For example, sending the losing leadership candidate as the Alberta representative in Asia is same old PC practices.
    Retreading red tory candidates in Calgary and eliminating old guard MLA's like Broyce Jacobs is more of the same.
    The next election for political aficionados like me, experiencing the downfall of the Socreds in 1971 and the closet example of true democracy in 1993 is a watershed. If there is no movement towards political democracy in 2012, it will probably never happen in my lifetime. So this is a plea to reject the same animal farm with different animals.

  6. David J. Climenhaga says:

    Anonymous 7:35 is of course right and I have amended the story to reflect this geographic truth. Thanks as always to my readers, who keep me on the straight and narrow in the absence of an editor.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Liepert as representative in Washington? Unlikely. David Bronconnier could then sue the government for constructive dismissal and return to lead the Liberals after Raj Sherman craters. How about Liepert returns to become post-election chief of staff in the premier's office?

  8. jerrymacgp says:

    While I share your criticism of the wisdom of amalgamating the 9 health regions & 3 provincial health boards into AHS, I do not agree that the clock should be turned back. We are stuck with AHS, warts and all, and what health care providers, managers and planners need most now is certainty: certainty that plans for improvement will proceed, rather than yet another wholesale restructuring and the organizational paralysis that would inevitably result.

  9. Anonymous says:

    DJC,unions command a lot of vote in AB. Some of us hope for the sake of rebalancing democracy, in Mason's own words, that unions come out and vote big for real change. Not just vote within the context of contract negotiations. Having spoken with a few Tory MLA's, generally they don't like collective bargainers. Perhaps bargainers would be wiser to choose voting differently to bring about the change that Mason wants and hopes for. Let's hope as a whole, some wisdom shines at the ballot boxes. We will keep out fingers crossed. Happy New Year, DJC, keep up the usual good writing.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Worldclass incompetance. Insurance salesmen are NOT problems solvers. Their job is to make as much money as possible.

  11. David J. Climenhaga says:

    A few comments from the author:

    First of all, I am reluctantly forced to agree with Jerrymacgp that while the creation of Alberta Health Services was a catastrophe – and a catastrophe the full implications of which have not all been revealed to us – trying to recreate the nine health regions at this time would probably do more harm than good.

    These brainiacs made one of the largest mistakes in Alberta history, now they've given it to us and it's become OUR mistake. We're just going to have to live with it. It's an absolute disgrace that they will almost certainly get away with it. Which is why the Wildrose Party works FOR the Tories, as well as against them. Have no doubt, the Wildrosers would perpetrate an even bigger disaster that would be even harder to repair – which is a key part of their whole destructive strategy.

    I agree with Anonymous 1:36 more than with Anonymous 7:39 in that it's more likely for the reasons stated that Mr. Liepert will end up as Ms. Redford's chief of staff than as Our Man in Washington. That said, I don't think either is a sure thing. It's a given, though, that Mr. Liepert will be amply rewarded by his party for his service to Alberta. Bet on it, we've not seen the last of this guy. Ken Kowalski, being quite a bit smarter, may go quietly, though.

    I also agree with Anonymous 11:15 that what progressive voters NEED to do in Alberta is vote for the NDP. To achieve that goal, however, the NDP right now needs to push in the few ridings where in can win in the present circumstances in order to become the Official Opposition. From there, perhaps, an Orange Wave can be made. Or maybe as the right-wingers constantly Tweet, there is no hope in Alberta – in which case, Alberta voters deserve their fate.

    Finally, while Anonymous 11:19 is right about what motivates insurance salesmen, I have known a few who were pretty smart dudes. A couple of them even ended up as NDP MLAs, though not in Alberta. It's true, though, it didn't work out when one of them got into cabinet.


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