Braid: AHS administrator Cowell’s big job comes with huge paycheque

Alberta pays its health administrator a whopping total of $360,000 for six months work

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Dr. John Cowell, the official administrator of Alberta Health Services, is being paid $360,000 for six months of work.

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The former CEO of AHS, Dr. Verna Yiu, was paid $573,000 for an entire year, a rate about 20 per cent lower than Cowell’s.

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Mauro Chies, the interim AHS CEO, is paid at an annual rate of $504,000.

That’s for running the whole system. Cowell’s office temp role is to improve it.

Cowell is leader of the pay pack across most of government. Except at AIMCO, where they play with real money, there can’t be many people near his level.

“It is not unreasonable for Dr. Cowell to be compensated, like many experts across numerous fields, at a higher expense because of the scale of work,” Scott Johnston, press secretary to Health Minister Jason Copping, said in an email.

“For his six-month term as the official administrator, Dr. Cowell will receive $360,000 plus any expenses in accordance with standard government policy.

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“The system was in crisis and while compensation may be higher than previous CEOs and administrators, the pay is reflective of the significant time commitment required to make the necessary changes.

“Dr. Cowell, in his current role of a full-time administrator, is working directly with the minister, Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services to expedite improvements and fix the health-care system.

“Dr. Cowell is providing the urgent, effective and timely leadership that will improve health-care outcomes for all Albertans.”

His expenses have included a $1,400 one-day limo trip from Calgary to Edmonton and back, for the throne speech and a meeting with Copping.

In Cowell’s defence, the minister said, “I appreciate that $1,400 looks like a lot of money, and it is a lot of money.

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“We asked Dr. Cowell to deliver on results so we can fix the health-care system. This is comparable for other options on that particular day.”

Copping said a return flight or overnight stay with meals, etc., would cost more. That’s probably right. A brief check of limo prices suggests Cowell even got a bit of a deal.

But what many people hear from numbers like this is that they’re not like us, those folks. In the wrong context, a number like $1,400 can be even more damaging than a much bigger figure (say, $360,000).

I’ve had a lot of respect for Cowell over the years. His work on the public inquiry into improper access to health care was exemplary.

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And now, as his pay level clearly shows, he is one of the most important people in the entire UCP government. On him rests the whole drive to sort out our troubled medical system.

If he succeeds, the UCP will take the credit. If he fails, the blame is all his. A career risk like that is worth a few extra bucks.

But some points are disconcerting in this intensely political time, with an election coming May 29.

On Feb. 27, Cowell reported progress in EMS response, reduction of red alerts and shorter times for patients to see a doctor in ER.

Cowell and Premier Danielle Smith enthusiastically declared the health-care crisis to be over. Many people in the system think that’s just not true.

Cowell also offered an extraordinary pledge. He said wait times for all surgeries, in every field, could fall within clinical guidelines by this time next year.

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Cowell is an optimistic person. He thinks it can all be done.

But when he made that surgery pledge, his words suddenly sounded like a campaign promise. He seemed as much a cheerleader as an administrator.

Many people in the system say the surgery goal is simply impossible to achieve in 12 months. “It’s all about people, and the people just aren’t there,” said one expert in orthopedics.

A role like Cowell’s — a high-stakes, high-pay, high-profile fixer of entrenched problems — should always come with an employment warning.

Don’t stray close to the political flame. You will get burned.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald.

Twitter: @DonBraid


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