Alberta Health Services searching for 7th CEO in 8 years

People familiar with Alberta Health Services say it will be hard to find a new leader given that the organization has a poor reputation worldwide.

The $500K-a-year job no one seems to want

Alberta Health Services searching for 7th CEO in 8 years

7 years ago
Duration 3:48
Former Nexen CEO Charlie Fischer says AHS needs to stop acting like a "cost centre" where the focus is on "not spending more money" and start focusing on better patient outcomes.

The job is posted and the global executive search firm Boyden has been hired.

The pay is good, at $480,000 to $780,000 a year.

But no one has applied, and that wouldn't surprise Liberal MLA David Swann.

"It's a terrible job. I wouldn't want it," said the former doctor turned politician.

People familiar with Alberta Health Services say it will be hard to find a new leader given that the organization has a poor reputation worldwide. (CBC)

Alberta Health Services (AHS) needs a new CEO, as in another new CEO. It will be the seventh chief executive in eight years.

"It's a very human organization that has over time devolved into hard feelings, lack of clarity, mutual blame for problems and lack of confidence in leadership. It's a very tough job."

Here is a look at the past CEOs:

  • Stephen Duckett: 2009-2010.
  • Dr. Chris Eagle: 2010-2013.
  • Dr. Duncan Campbell: October 2013 to November 2013.
  • Brenda Huband and Rick Trimp (co-CEOs): November 2013 to March 2014.
  • Vickie Kaminski: May 2014 to November 2015.
  • Dr. Verna Yiu (interim): January 2016 to present.

Political Interference

It's hard not to use superlatives when describing AHS. 

Liberal MLA David Swann says being CEO of Alberta Health Services would be a 'terrible job' after years of political meddling. (CBC)

As the largest employer in the province, with 110,000 people on its payroll and a budget of $13 billion, it's also the largest health authority in the country — there's nothing like it in Canada.

Add to the list, the organization has had almost as many CEOs as birthdays — seven since the super board was created eight years ago.

So why the turn over?

Swann believes its primarily because politics have infiltrated health care.

AHS was set up to run at arms-length from the government, but there have been repeated allegations of political meddling over the years, which culminated with the dismantling of the AHS board in 2013 by the former PC government.

"Any organization that has two bosses will run into these problems. If they're not clear about who's responsible for what. If this is truly an arms-length organization called AHS with a separate board that's been empowered to provide services, then the (health) minister cannot jump in. The health department cannot intervene in the day-to-day operations and retain confidence."

As an example, Swann cites the health minister commenting on the fentanyl drug crisis.

"How is it that the minister of health is talking about fentanyl? What is wrong with a system where the minister has to get involved with an issue that is clearly operational?"

Swann says years of instability at the top has lead to disputes on the ground. He says doctors spend "years on working on committees, making recommendations that go nowhere."

Finding a replacement

The most recent CEO to leave was Vickie Kaminski, who left in January 2016 halfway through her three-year contract.

In 2013, AHS CEO Chris Eagle resigned midway through his five-year contract. (CBC)

She cited "personal reasons" for her departure but it came soon after a new AHS board was appointed and sources tell CBC there were disagreements between Kaminski and the new NDP government.

Within two weeks of announcing her resignation, she had taken on a new job in Australia.

Stephen Duckett, who also took a job at an Australian think-tank following his time in Alberta, says filling the job won't be easy.

Duckett was the very first CEO to hold the job, and held it until that embarrassing incident with a cookie.

He was caught on camera refusing to answer a reporter's question saying he couldn't because he was "eating a cookie," and left soon after.

Vickie Kaminski was the most recent CEO to resign, halfway through her term. She said she left for 'personal reasons.' Two weeks after announcing her resignation, Kaminski had a new job in Australia. (The Canadian Press)

In an interview from Australia, where he now works as a health economist, Duckett laughs when asked about the reputation of AHS globally.

"Well now it's not very good is it, if you can't keep CEOs for more than two years."

Time to change

There is no shortage of people on the sidelines with a vision of how AHS should be reformed.

Dr. John Cowell spent 10 years as head of the Health Quality Council of Alberta and then a year in the position of official administrator. (A job created when the AHS board was dismantled by government in 2013).

"When I was brought in, it was a very troubled organization."

Cowell says he worked with about eight health ministers over those 11 years, and each one brought a new approach to health care.

"What organization anywhere could achieve stability if the leadership at that level is changing?"

Cowell holds out faith that things can improve.

Former Alberta Health Services president and CEO Stephen Duckett says the reputation of AHS worldwide 'is not very good' after the organization has seen high turnover in its leadership. (CBC)

He says if the new board is given a clear mandate, and the health minister gets out of the way, then AHS might be able to lure in a strong new CEO — one that will stick it out.

"AHS has every potential to become world-class organization if only given the environment to enable that."

Well-defined swim lanes 

As the new chair of the AHS board, Linda Hughes has the formidable task of bringing order and optimism to the organization.

Hughes says the board is working on a "mandate document" between AHS and government to "determine what our swim lanes are."

"It's a question of trying to build up trust. This is what government wants. It's certainly what AHS wants. There's good will on both sides. And that's what we are going to work on. Not just the formal arrangements about what the responsibilities are but also this culture of trust."

Hughes calls the job of CEO "the most exciting health-care job in the country," and says they hope to find a new CEO by early summer.

Putting the patient first

Charlie Fischer is a legendary oilman but he wants to shake things up in health care.

AHS senior administrator Dr. John Cowell. (CBC)

The former CEO of Nexen says he became involved after a number of bad experiences with hospitals, as his mother and mother-in-law both died and then he had cancer. 

He has started up the IMAGINE Project, a grassroots group that aims to change health care to become what he calls "patient focused."

"My experience in business is the customer is the priority. If we change the culture to make patients the priority, the behaviours would change and we'd have better patient experiences and better patient outcomes." 

Fischer describes a system where family doctors and specialists don't communicate, and patients are rarely given a voice in their care, as primary care in Alberta is not part of AHS.

He compares that to the health-care system in New Zealand where family doctors are incorporated into all treatment plans.

Fischer says AHS needs to stop acting like a "cost centre" where the focus is on "not spending more money" and start focusing on better patient outcomes.

What better time to implement these broad, foundational changes than with a new CEO. 

"Everybody I talk with knows they need to make the changes. What they don't know is how. Again, I don't think these are health-care issues, these are change management issues." 


Judy Aldous

CBC Radio

Judy Aldous is an award-winning reporter and producer who has worked across the country for CBC Radio. She's been working with CBC Calgary since 2002 and is currently the host of alberta@noon.