Health Minister Sarah Hoffman denies allegations of political interference in AHS

Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman is denying allegations she and her deputy minister politically interfered in the operation of Alberta Health Services.

Former chief executive officer Vickie Kaminski says she resigned over interference

Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman denies allegations of political interference in Alberta Health Services. (CBC News)

Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman is denying allegations she and her deputy minister politically interfered in the operation of Alberta Health Services.

Detailed allegations of political interference are contained in the Nov. 25, 2015, resignation letter of former AHS chief executive officer Vickie Kaminski, obtained exclusively by CBC News.

"I understand that from the tone of the letter, she feels that there was interference," Hoffman said in an interview with CBC News. "I think it was governing."

Kaminski resigned from her $540,000 a year job midway through her three-year contract, forfeiting a year's severance, because she said she worried the escalating political interference might damage her professional reputation. She alleged political ideology was trumping evidence-based decision making.

Hoffman said Kaminski was frustrated by her repeated requests for information to justify some of the plans recommended by Kaminski to change parts of the health care system. That was especially true of recommendations that involved privatization or outsourcing of health-care services.

"Those are questions that I think are responsible questions to be asking," Hoffman said. "I would not characterize that as political interference. I would consider that good governance."

Never told of political-interference allegations

Hoffman said she had never seen Kaminski's resignation letter before it was shown to her by CBC News.

Kaminski sent her resignation letter to AHS board chair Linda Hughes and official administrator David Carpenter. But Hoffman insisted neither Hughes nor Carpenter nor anyone else had told her Kaminski resigned because of what she felt was inappropriate political interference by the minister herself.

Former Alberta Health Services CEO Vickie Kaminski says she resigned because of political interference. (CBC News)
She said Hughes "told me there was a lengthy letter and she also said that there was a formal statement that it was for personal reasons. And I thanked her for giving me the heads up."

But after the interview, Hoffman said she had been briefed on "high-level issues" from Kaminski's letter but she would not specify what those were.

Hughes did not respond to a request from CBC News to answer specific questions about Kaminski's allegations. Instead, in a statement, she said a "letter written several months ago looks backwards and is not reflective of the present day."

She said corporate governance at AHS is working "very well.

"We have a new board that is providing governance oversight, and that has helped foster productive and collegial relationships with Alberta Health, the minister and deputy minister, and their teams," Hughes said.

Hughes also did not address Kaminski's allegation that the AHS board was not independent.

Kaminski, in her letter, told Hughes and Carpenter that she was "apprehensive that (the AHS board) will not be allowed to function as a board should, especially since the regulations were quietly changed to allow government to appoint the clerk of executive council to the authority's board.

"This decision removes any illusions about whether or not the Government of Alberta will continue to overly influence the work of AHS or that there is any degree of independence," she wrote.

In her resignation letter, Kaminski said she was increasingly concerned that health deputy minister Carl Amrhein gave specific directions in what Amrhein referred to as "voice mode" with no supporting documentation so that "there should not be any email trail."

Amrhein did not respond to an interview request from CBC News. But Hoffman downplayed  the allegation, saying "there are times where you're not going to spend all day writing details in emails, but you want to have a dialogue with a person on the other end of the phone or a conversation.

"I see what she is asserting there but certainly I view my experiences as being very professional with Dr. Amrhein. I expect he treats other members of the public service in the same way."

No interference in contract negotiations

Kaminski also alleges in her letter that there was political interference in contract negotiations with some Alberta Union of Provincial Employees locals, both in terms of the timing of the negotiations and the wage increase offered.

She said she was directed to quickly call the AUPE back to the bargaining table to avoid embarrassment for Premier Rachel Notley, who was planning to attend the union's annual general meeting. But after doing so, AHS was only mandated to offer a one-per-cent raise, less than what AHS had set aside for the negotiations.

Hoffman said there was no interference.

"I can say that when we found out that both the employer and employees were willing to go back to the table, I certainly made sure that they were both aware of that and encouraged them to consider mediation opportunities," she said.

She said she couldn't comment on the wage offer because arbitration is ongoing.

Kaminski, in her letter, expressed particular frustration after plans to centralize ambulance-dispatch services in Calgary were abruptly stopped. She said that after receiving Hoffman's support for the plan, she and Amrhein phoned Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi to tell him the change was coming.

But she alleges that a day later, the government stopped AHS from implementing the plan, even though a 20-year lease for the new dispatch centre is costing AHS $750,000 a year.

Hoffman said she can't recall whether she supported the centralization plan at that time. She acknowledges Nenshi personally phoned her.

"It was very clear to me after hearing how that telephone conversation (with Kaminski and Amrhein) went that it was not a positive or productive conversation," she said, adding that she decided to "hit the pause" on the plan.

Hoffman said she still talks to Nenshi regularly and no decision will be made on whether to centralize Calgary's ambulance-dispatch service until she has enough information to ensure the right decision is made.

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