Premier Danielle Smith and the province's Health Minister, Jason Copping announced on Thursday afternoon that the existing part-time Alberta Health Services (AHS) board of directors, numbering 11 individuals will be replaced with an appointed full-time official administrator, Dr. John Cowell. Dr. Cowell will be reporting directly to the Premier and minister of health.

According to both Dr. Copping and Premier Smith, the move is meant to fast-track change in the healthcare system.

During the press conference Minister Copping, Premier Smith and Dr. Cowell all took turns speaking on the most pressing needs in the province's healthcare system which include improving Emergency medical service response times, decreasing emergency room waiting, as well as reducing wait times for surgeries.

“I am ready to get to work on behalf of Albertans, building a better system to support patients needing care. I look forward to working with the AHS team and taking tangible actions to drive much-needed change," Dr. Cowell said.

The province has outlined several key initiatives that they are hoping to tackle in the coming weeks and months. When it comes to decreasing ambulance response times, Dr. Cowell will be tasked with fast-tracking ambulance transfers at emergency rooms so paramedics are available for more calls, as well as using more appropriate modes of transportation for non-emergency inter-facility transfers.

Part of the plan the province has outlined will also be geared towards empowering front-line workers. This means that EMS dispatch should be able to step-down calls from 911 to Health Link based on patient needs and allow paramedics to triage whether or not a patient needs to be transferred to an ER by ambulance.

Progress on EMS response times will be measured using four key metrics including the time from a call to 9-1-1 to when the ambulance arrives, patient offload times at an ER, the number of less urgent calls handled by an ambulance, as well as the number of calls ‘stepped-down’ from 911 to Health Link.

Tracy Sopkow, the CEO of Rural Health Professions Actions Plan said that his organization is committed to working with the government and all its partners to continue to improve Alberta’s healthcare system, particularly for those living in rural and remote Alberta. 

"All Albertans will benefit from strengthened EMS services, shorter waits in our emergency departments and efforts to maximize the current surgical capacity in our system, especially in rural Alberta. We look forward to partnering with the government and AHS to advance our system’s outcomes for the benefit of all Albertans.”

Tackling the issue of emergency room wait times will also mean that Dr. Cowell will be looking at bringing in additional health professionals to improve on-site patient care and management and transferring an increased number of patients from hospital beds into more appropriate care settings such as home care, long-term and continuing care facilities. The benchmarks of success for this reform will mean that the government will track the time it takes from the moment a patient enters an ER to when they receive the appropriate level of care they require.

And while Premier Smith said that the surgery backlog has nearly come down to pre-pandemic levels, she says that is not nearly enough for Albertans. According to the province, about 68,400 Albertans are currently awaiting surgery. That number is down from the 81,000 Albertans who were waiting at the height of the pandemic. However, according to the province, pre-COVID-19 the list was at 68,000.  

Dr. Cowell said that he will be looking at the utilization rate of operating rooms at AHS hospitals as well as the proportion of surgeries occurring within clinically acceptable wait times and surgery wait times to assess whether reducing surgery wait times is effective. 

Apart from the immediate tasks that he will oversee, Dr. Cowell will also be working with frontline workers in order to develop a more long-term strategy for health reform in the province. The province is hoping that he will be able to work on initiatives such as restoring decision-making to the local level and local health professionals and attracting more healthcare professionals into the province. Alberta.

"Long-term reforms will mean that results are not immediately available. However, progress and success in developing long-term reforms will be tracked by health service wait times and health professional-to-population ratios," the province stated. 

However, according to Mike Parker, the President of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), while he expressed hope for the province's announcement, HSAA also underlined it continues to have concerns, saying that this announcement is causing organizational chaos and pursuing failed privatization schemes.

“Don’t forget, a few months ago, this government was trying to impose double-digit wage rollbacks on our members,” he said. “They are currently transitioning thousands of lab professionals to a private employer, putting their pensions at risk. They are doing harm right now by ignoring science and creating doubt about the effectiveness of masks and vaccines.”

According to a press release from HSAA, Parker met with both the Premier and Health Minister this morning before the afternoon announcement. 

“It was encouraging to hear the Premier and the Minister state their intention to address issues we have been raising for the last three and a half years,” Parker said. “Premier Smith echoed our stance that Alberta needs to be doing more to retain the people we have and to increase the numbers of health professionals we are training and recruiting.”

NDP Leader Rachel Notley blasted the announcement by the government saying that it does nothing to address the specific calls from frontline paramedics to reduce wait times.

“This new round of chaos Danielle Smith is inflicting on health care will make the situation worse. Healthcare workers deserve leadership that will listen to them and support them."

Notley added that the dismissal of the AHS board is political theatre.

"As Danielle Smith, herself said when the Redford government did the exact same thing: it’s window dressing," she said.

Notley countered Smith's plan by saying that under an NDP government, there would be a launch of what she described as the largest healthcare recruitment campaign in the history of the province.

“An Alberta NDP government will go straight to the heart of the problem. We will bring real resources to the frontline and reverse the years of UCP cuts. We will work collaboratively and respectfully with healthcare professionals. We will end the chaos and bring stability to our hospitals, our ambulances, and to primary care."

The shakeup in the province's healthcare portfolio began earlier this week when Danielle Smith replaced Dr. Deena Hinshaw from her position as the province's chief medical officer of health, with AHS vice-president Dr. Mark Joffe.