Alberta health board replaces controversial CEO

Alberta Health Services has replaced its president and CEO, Stephen Duckett, five days after he refused to talk to reporters about a meeting on the province's ER crisis because he was too busy eating a cookie.
Stephen Duckett declines to answer questions from reporters Friday during the 'cookie incident' that led to his dismissal Wednesday as CEO and president of Alberta Health Services. ((CBC))
Alberta Health Services has replaced its president and CEO, Stephen Duckett, five days after he refused to talk to reporters about a meeting on the province's ER crisis because he was too busy eating a cookie.

The chairman of the Alberta Health Services board, Ken Hughes, made the announcement to reporters in Edmonton late Wednesday afternoon. 

"We have jointly agreed that it is time to move forward," Hughes said, later adding the board felt Duckett's ability to be effective as CEO was "compromised."

The cookie incident was one factor in the board's assessment, Hughes said. Video of Duckett's exchange with reporters was viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube.

'I did speak to the minister and his directions were clear.'—Alberta Health Services chairman Ken Hughes

Dr. Chris Eagle, executive vice-president for quality and service improvement with AHS, will immediately take over as acting CEO. AHS will now start the search for a permanent CEO.

"The board would like to thank Dr. Duckett for his dedication to improving Alberta's health system during a challenging time of transition for Alberta Health Services," Hughes said.

"His determination to create a strong foundation for Alberta Health Services will serve Albertans for many years to come."

Duckett was paid a base salary of $575,000 plus bonuses. The cost of cancelling his contract is a year's pay plus moving expenses.

Duckett was not in Edmonton for the announcement. In a Facebook message to CBC News Wednesday night, Duckett indicated he would be in the United States for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Board member resigns, 2 more expected to follow

The decision was made during  a board meeting that started with a conference call Tuesday night and continued through Wednesday.

Dr. Chris Eagle, executive vice-president for quality and service improvement with AHS, has been named acting CEO. ((CBC))
As board chairman, Hughes reports to provincial Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky. He acknowledged Zwozdesky contacted him about the decision.

"I did speak to the minister and his directions were clear," he said.

"This board reports to the minister, is appointed by the minister and if this board receives directions from the minister, the board needs to take those into consideration in its conduct."

Zwozdesky confirmed he played a role in the board's decision.

"The board operates in an arm's length fashion, but they are responsible to me as the minister," Zwozdesky said. "I take that responsibility very seriously because I am responsible to Albertans and I am accountable to Albertans."

Gord Bontje, an AHS board member from Red Deer, resigned. Hughes is expecting two more members to submit their resignations.

"This was a very difficult decision," Hughes said. "It was very heartfelt decision by members of the board."

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach said he supports the board's decision to remove Duckett.

"It certainly reflected the views of Albertans," he said.

Comments deemed 'offensive' by premier

There has been a sizable public backlash since Duckett refused to answer questions from reporters after leaving a meeting on Alberta's ER crisis Friday afternoon.

Duckett repeatedly told reporters he was too busy to comment because he was eating a cookie.

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky confirmed he provided direction to AHS board members in their deliberations about Duckett's future. ((CBC))
Duckett's fate appeared to be sealed when Stelmach labelled his behaviour "quite offensive" during question period Tuesday in the Alberta legislature.

Duckett, an economist and former senior Australian health official, was hired in 2009 to head up Alberta Health Services, the so-called health superboard that was created when the Stelmach government disbanded the province's nine regional health authorities.

During his time as CEO, Alberta Health Services made a number of decisions like proposing to move as many as 250 psychiatric patients out of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton and closing 300 acute-care beds at hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary.

Both decisions were reversed by Zwozdesky when he took over the health portfolio from Ron Liepert in January.

Duckett a scapegoat: opposition

Duckett was also at the helm of AHS when the province was widely criticized for the rollout of the H1N1 flu vaccination program in 2009, which led to people standing in lineups for hours.

"The government was fine with all of that," said Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason. "But when he embarrassed them, he was gone in an instant and so that speaks volumes about this government's priorities."

Mason said Duckett has been made a scapegoat for the province's health-care troubles, a view that was shared by Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann.

"The problem is this government is treating health care like General Motors or Ford, as a corporate delivery system for a particular product instead of recognizing it as a human service," Swann said.

Swann believes Alberta should put some regional boards back in place, with a central body taking care of payroll and standards across the province.

The decision to dismiss Duckett is the latest wrinkle in a turbulent week in Alberta politics.

On Monday, Edmonton MLA and emergency room doctor Raj Sherman was suspended from the Tory caucus after he sent an email to his Conservative colleagues last week, which was leaked to the media, stating that his trust in Stelmach and the government was "severely tarnished" over the ER issue.

He accused Stelmach of breaking a promise to fix problems in emergency rooms. Sherman apologized to Stelmach and was allowed to stay in the Tory caucus after a meeting last Thursday.

But on Friday, Sherman criticized Liepert for being "rude and offensive" to front-line medical staff, remarks that Liepert has demanded he retract.