Saskatchewan

'Not an ideal kind of job': Sask. Health Authority faces challenges in finding new CEO, health analyst says

Livingstone left his position for reasons unknown after guiding the SHA through the pandemic and being at the helm when the province's 12 health regions amalgamated into one.

Sask. Health Authority released statement on former CEO Scott Livingstone’s resignation last Thursday

Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) CEO Scott Livingstone resigned from his position in late November. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

It will be challenging for the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) to replace former CEO Scott Livingstone, according to a health policy analyst.

Livingstone left his position for reasons unknown after guiding the SHA through the pandemic and being at the helm when the province's 12 health regions amalgamated into one.

The SHA sent out a news release Thursday morning announcing Livingstone was stepping down effective immediately. Premier Scott Moe said he was informed about the departure the previous week. The SHA says his resignation wasn't announced till later because the board needed time to appoint an interim CEO.

The SHA board selected vice-president of infrastructure and information Andrew Will as interim CEO.

The authority's other top ranking executive, Suann Laurent, the chief operating officer of the SHA, also retired at the end of October. 

The SHA is now looking for permanent replacements in both positions.

Livingstone was one of the best-compensated public servants in the province, receiving $417,729 in salary and allowances, according to the SHA's 2021 annual report.

Steven Lewis, a health policy analyst, says despite that rate it will be hard to fill his position. 

Lewis says Livingstone's "abrupt" departure "seems to signal that all could not be entirely well" within the SHA.

"It's not the normal way that a CEO leaves when there is a succession planned," he said. "You usually hear a lot more, 'Thank you. Scott did a wonderful job. We wish him well in his future opportunities.' And you might also have heard him say the organization is in good hands."

Livingstone has not publicly commented on his departure. CBC News reached out to him multiple times for an interview but did not hear back.

Instability for SHA

Lewis says his departure "creates a certain amount of instability" for the SHA.

"It's difficult for anyone to conclude that this was a smooth and planned departure under ideal circumstances."

Opposition Leader Ryan Meili asked Moe on Monday if Livingstone left because Moe's government ignored advice from health experts about implementing tougher health restrictions.

Moe didn't shed any light on Livingstone's departure, but said there will be no disruption in services at the SHA as a result of his resignation. 

Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili repeatedly asked Premier Scott Moe why Scott Livingstone resigned from the SHA in the middle of a pandemic. (Matt Duguid/CBC)

Lewis says Livingstone's job is not "ideal."

"It's not much of a secret that Saskatchewan has not managed the pandemic very well compared to other provinces," he said. 

"Nor is it a secret that there have been incompatible messages at times between what the experts have said and what Scott Livingstone said, and others have said, about what we need to do to get this thing under control and what the government is inclined to do."

Livingstone's messaging during the pandemic was sometimes at odds with the government's.

In October, Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman said the province was not asking the federal government for assistance because Saskatchewan's health-care system had enough workers to handle its load of patients with and without COVID-19.

That statement came only a day after Livingstone said the system was still under "significant pressures" because of the flood of COVID-19 patients into Saskatchewan hospitals. 

"It's not an ideal kind of job to come to unless you're kind of a firefighter by nature and you love conflict and managing it and seeing through a situation from one crisis to another," Lewis said.

'High risk of an exodus' in the SHA

Dan Florizone, the former president and CEO of the Saskatoon Health Region and former deputy minister of health, says filling these types of high-ranking positions is "challenging in the best of times" and will be even more challenging now.

Florizone says the SHA has to try to attract a person to this role that's interested not only in the challenges of the day, but in building, supporting and recovering from this pandemic. 

"We have an exhausted team staff. We have this really high risk of an exodus of individuals. If they were ready to retire before, now appears to be the time for them to depart the system," he said. 

Florizone says the new CEO will have to tackle employment retention, dealing with backlogs of surgeries and other procedures and "at the same time, building a vision for the future to make sure the health system is strong and robust."

He says ideally, he'd like the position to be filled by a woman with a clinical background who is on the front line of the health-care system.

"To be able to come from where people are actually doing the work and committed to that work is an extremely important consideration," he said. 

Staffing shortage 'crisis'

Employee retention is a top issue for Bashir Jalloh, president of CUPE Local 5430, the largest health-care union in Saskatchewan, representing over 13,000 members.

Jalloh says there's a staffing shortage "crisis" within the SHA, driven by the mostly precarious, part-time and casual positions available.

According to Jalloh, among the approximately 1,400 SHA job opportunities currently posted, only about 180 are permanent, full-time positions.

"Our employer, the SHA, has been using short-term measures to deal with short staffing," he said. 

"We want a CEO that is going to have long-term strategies and whatever that strategy is, we want it to be inclusive. We want to be part of it. We are on the front line."

Barbara Cape, president at SEIU-West, a union which also represents thousands of health-care workers across the province, says she was "absolutely surprised" by Livingstone's departure but that it doesn't impact union members or services. 

"It changes nothing for us in terms of just trying to make sure that health-care workers and the patients and clients and residents that we serve have the best people available with the right number of people available," she said.

She says the new CEO has a "shared responsibility," alongside the SHA board, senior leadership, front-line staff and the unions who represent them, to get the province out of the pandemic in order to address issues such as staff retention and better pay. 

"If we can come out of this unfortunate situation created by Mr. Livingstone's departure and recommit to a better relationship, I think that's a win for our patients, clients and residents."

"I know there's a lot of speculation about why Scott Livingstone left, and I don't know if we'll ever know the reason. The only thing I would say is on behalf of SEIU-West, we wish him well."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yasmine Ghania is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan, currently based in Saskatoon.

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