Alberta's top health administrator bills taxpayers for $1,400 round-trip

In November, Dr. John Cowell hired a car for $1,462.50 to take him from Calgary to Edmonton and back, despite less expensive options being available.

Alberta's top health administrator bills taxpayers for $1,400 round-trip
Jason Copping/ Facebook
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Alberta's health minister claims a $1,400 round-trip by his top administrator is value for taxpayer dollars. 

In November, Dr. John Cowell rented a private car to take him from Calgary to Edmonton and back to attend the throne speech at the legislature while he took calls and handled sensitive documents.

Health Minister Jason Copping said Cowell, the official administrator for Alberta Health Services (AHS), is tasked with steering the $16 billion health system in a new direction. The health minister said he wants Cowell focused on that.

“I fully appreciate that the appearance looks costly,” said Copping at Friday's news conference. “But we've hired Dr. Cowell to come in [and] drive changes faster through our healthcare system, through AHS.

“This is all within government policy to hire a car, so he can do work in the car, take calls using confidential documents, do a bunch of meetings in Edmonton — including with me — and then return the same day.”

Copping said the costs would be comparable to flying and staying in a hotel.

In mid-November, Premier Danielle Smith hired Cowell and fired the entire governing board of AHS, citing its failure to meet the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cowell is tasked with reducing surgical wait lists, improving ambulance response times and reducing emergency room bottlenecks that the COVID pandemic exacerbated.

In January, the health minister said funding more services performed at hospitals or Canadian Surgery Solutions (CSS) grows the publicly-funded system without stealing staff or physicians from each other.

As of January, CSS will offer over 3,000 additional hip and knee replacements and joint procedures annually. Around 6,000 Calgarians alone are on a waitlist for orthopedic surgery.

In 2021/22, the median wait time for Albertans needing orthopedic surgery was 48.4 weeks, waiting for 16 weeks to meet with a specialist and 32.4 weeks to receive treatment after meeting the specialist.

According to the Fraser Institute, the reasonable wait time for all surgeries in Alberta is 11.1 weeks, representing a difference of 8.1 weeks as residents waited nearly five months to receive treatment last year.

The UCP's Health Care Action Plan (HCAP) pinpointed independent facilities to reduce surgical backlogs as part of a new contract with AHS. It will increase orthopedic procedures performed in the Calgary area by 21% compared with 2021/22.

“We're making progress in surgery,” said Copping. “But we have to do more.”

Earlier this week, Cowell delivered a 90-day update and said while there are improvements across the board, more work needs to be done. In November, he hired a car for $1,462.50 for the round trip despite less expensive options being available.

AHS spokesman Kerry Williamson also said the decision was value for money.

“[Cowell] required the use of a vehicle so that he could work and take calls of a sensitive nature while on the road and also avoid the expense of an overnight stay,” said Williamson.  

He added that Cowell's expenses fall within the Alberta government's expense policy, which permits the reimbursement for the cost of using a third-party vehicle, such as a town car or taxi.

Williamson claimed the cost of the travel is equivalent to or cheaper than airfare, hotel, parking and taxi use.

But Opposition NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips criticized Cowell's decision, claiming it showed questionable optics and judgment.

“Renting a sedan service to drive around the province just smacks of some of the old [Progressive Conservative] entitlement. You can't legislate this kind of thing,” said Phillips. “You can fly in just as much time and simultaneously make whatever calls you like.”

A reporter asked the health minister if Cowell should continue using the cars or seek a cheaper option. Copping said the government constantly seeks ways to reduce costs, maximize work, and meet online when possible.

“There are many trips he doesn't make.”

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