Alberta's health minister 'appreciates the optics' but stands by $1,400 car ride for AHS top official

Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping, right, is defending a $1,400 car ride to Edmonton and back by Dr. John Cowell, left, who is the official administrator for Alberta Health Services. (CBC  - image credit)
Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping, right, is defending a $1,400 car ride to Edmonton and back by Dr. John Cowell, left, who is the official administrator for Alberta Health Services. (CBC - image credit)

The Alberta government is defending the man it appointed to oversee Alberta Health Services and reform the health system, as he continues to come under fire for his own spending.

CBC News reported this week that Dr. John Cowell, hired in November when the Smith government fired the AHS board, expensed $1,400 for a car and driver in a single day, after less than two weeks on the job.

Expense documents show Cowell used the car service to go to Edmonton for the throne speech and a meeting with Health Minister Jason Copping.

This is the first approved and publicly disclosed expense for Cowell since he was appointed in November.

"I appreciate $1,400 looks like a lot of money, and is a lot of money," Copping said when asked about the expense claim at a press conference Friday in Calgary.

"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."

According to Copping, the bill for a car and driver is comparable to paying for a flight, hotel and taxis.

AHS expense documents, though, show other executives and board members have made similar trips for less.

"We hired Dr. Cowell to come in, drive changes faster through our health-care system, through AHS. The choice was made — and this is all through government policy — to hire a car so he can actually do work in the car, take calls using confidential documents, do a bunch of meetings in Edmonton, including with me, and return back the same day," said Copping.

"I appreciate the optics, but when I look at the best choice in a $16-billion system to be able to drive better health-care outcomes for all Albertans … I recognize the optics but we need Dr. Cowell to be focused on that."

Cowell should 'know better'

Tony Dagnone, one of the 11 AHS board members ousted by the Smith government and replaced with Cowell as official administrator, calls the expense an example of "over-the-top entitlement."

"He of all people should know better.… It's that kind of entitlement that does a disservice to all the Alberta Health Services staff," he said.

"To me, it smacks of an irresponsible example of fiscal accountability for a leader."

Dagnone said that when he was with AHS, board members made every effort to be budget conscious when travelling.

"We shouldn't be surprised if there's a public outcry," he said.


'Do more with less'

And there is frustration on the front lines, too.

"Things are still really busy and pretty tight. And [we're] still facing staffing shortages," said Dr. Arun Abbi, a Calgary ER physician.

"What we're finding hard is that we're trying to run leaner and leaner, trying to figure out how to save money in the system so that we can do more with less. And on the other hand, the government is saying we're going to give you a sedan to drive you up to Edmonton.… It does seem excessive."

Abbi, who is the section president of emergency medicine with the Alberta Medical Association, does his own driving to Edmonton for meetings, charging mileage.

He estimates Cowell's expense claim is roughly four times higher than what he has charged for a similar trip.

Manuel Carrillos/CBC
Manuel Carrillos/CBC

Union leader Gil McGowan calls Cowell's spending "outrageous."

"This suggests there's a standard for UCP insiders that is different than front-line workers, who have seen paltry wage increases that haven't nearly kept up with inflation for the past decade," said McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"They suffer along but people like Cowell get to ride in luxury."

McGowan said he'd call for a public review of Cowell's expenses but he has no confidence it would yield any results, in the lead up to an election.

"This guy was supposed to be the clean broom who was brought in to sweep up and clean up at AHS. And one of his first acts is to engage in irresponsible spending on himself," said McGowan.

"How can we have confidence — how can Albertans or front-line health-care workers have confidence that this is the guy to do the job?"