Gunter: Premier Alison Redford and Health Minister Fred Horne must take blame for Alberta health care fiasco

By ,QMI Agency

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The Alberta provincial government claims it will spend $36.4 billion on operations in the coming year.

Of that sum, $17.1 billion (47%) will go to health care — nearly half.

Of that $17.1 billion, $10.9 billion will be given to Alberta Health Services (AHS) to run the public system of hospitals, clinics and care centres.

That means AHS is responsible for a full 30% of all the money the Alberta government spends in a year — not just on health care, but on all operations including education, environment, welfare, municipalities, transportation and so on.

More accurately, AHS is irresponsible for nearly a third of the province’s operating funds. AHS is the elephant in the provincial treasury.

But while Albertans have focused on the role of AHS in the myriad spending scandals that have spewed out of the public health-care system over the last nine months, it is time to begin pinning the blame where it squarely belongs: on Health Minister Fred Horne, Premier Alison Redford and the Tory government.

After all, it is the government that hands over nearly a third of its operating budget to AHS and the government that then seems to wash its hands of any culpability.

Albertans will pay $14.8 billion in provincial income tax in the coming year, meaning the equivalent of 75 cents of every $1 we pay goes to AHS. Then when AHS blows millions upon millions on expense accounts for its army of vice-presidents, regional managers, local managers, consultants and just plain old managers, Fred Horne expresses his regret that he can do nothing.

Wednesday, the Wildrose opposition revealed yet another spending irregularity at AHS. Former Executive Vice-President for Strategy and Performance Alison Tonge, a Brit, was reimbursed $1,570 for health care tests to support her immigration application to Canada.

This doesn’t strike me as all that outrageous. Lots of private-sector employers do the same for employees they are recruiting from other countries. If you want someone to say yes to your job offer, you have to pay their relocation expenses, and immigration health tests are a relocation expense.

What is outraging about the Tonge file, though, is that she was here just 26 months (Nov. 2009 to Jan. 2012), after which she returned to Britain. Yet Alberta taxpayers paid her nearly $427,000 in severance. That’s more than $16,000 a month for each month she was here. That’s quite the parting gift.

More significantly, it is standard for the scores of executives that have traipsed in and out of AHS or its precursors over the past decade. Exorbitant goodbye packages for short-term work are the norm.

Yet each time a new scandal tumbles out of AHS (almost tripping over the corpse of the one before it), Minister Horne and Premier Redford shrug their shoulders, turn their palms skyward and claim to be powerless to do anything.

Last summer, when Allaudin Merali was exposed for having expensed more than $350,000 for butlers, Mercedes repairs and fancy trips, Horne said there was little he could do because it was an AHS matter.

Ditto when AHS Chairman Stephen Lockwood quietly cancelled the audits of nearly 30 top execs, ordered by Horne in the wake of the Merali affair.

It was the same after the auditor general discovered $100 million in AHS expenses over just 17 months in 2011 and 2012, and when the AHS announced last month that it would be paying out millions in executive bonuses. Each time Horne claimed to be angry, but simultaneously insisted he lacked the authority to change things.

The AHS is a train wreck that cannot put itself back on track. It is precisely Horne, Redford and the Tories who must act.