Less than two weeks after he was appointed official administrator of Alberta Health Services, during a high-profile shakeup of the health authority by the Danielle Smith government, Dr. John Cowell expensed a $1,400 car service for a trip from Calgary to Edmonton and back.
Publicly available AHS expense documents reveal Cowell racked up a $1,462.50 bill for Nobnish Transport, a Calgary- based limousine and sedan service on Nov. 29, the day of the Throne Speech.
Cowell was appointed official administrator of Alberta Health Services on Nov. 17 as Smith made good on her campaign promise to disband the 11-person AHS board.
The document shows an extended, four-passenger sedan was booked for 13 hours, between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., making a round trip from Cowell’s home in Calgary to Edmonton the day of the Throne speech. He also had a meeting with Health Minister Jason Copping.
It’s the first expense Cowell has claimed during his latest stint as AHS official administrator. He was previously appointed to the same position in 2013.
The invoice, dated Dec. 1, shows a charge of $1,170 for the car and driver, a 20-per-cent gratuity amounting to $234, plus GST, billed at $58.50. The GST was exempted and the reimbursement totalled $1,404.
It shows Cowell made a stop at at AHS’s corporate offices and the legislature — where, in both cases, the car and driver waited for him — before returning to Calgary the same day.
“The optics of that are quite poor,” said Lorian Hardcastle, who teaches health law and policy at the University of Calgary.
She said the expense claim by Cowell appears “excessive.”
“Whenever we look at the health-care system there are questions around spending and value for money and areas where we should tighten the purse strings and areas where we should increase spending,” she said.
“So there’s a disconnect between that kind of discourse [and] someone who’s being paid quite handsomely, and then also submitting quite generous expense claims.”
Cowell was brought in to reform AHS and fix a health-care system the government characterized as “unable to meet growing demand,” at a time when ER wait times ballooned and many doctors and nurses said their hospitals were in crisis.
He was tasked with four priorities: reducing ER wait times, improving EMS response times, reducing surgical wait times, and improving patient flow through the health system. Cowell provided a 90-day update on Monday, during which he outlined a number of health system improvements.
Mount Royal University political watcher Lori Williams said this spending revelation is unlikely to sit well with Albertans, many of whom are struggling financially.
“It looks like the comfort and convenience of government officials is more important than wise stewardship of taxpayer dollars. And that’s not a look you can afford, especially leading up to an election campaign,” said Williams, an associate professor of policy studies at MRU.
“For somebody who’s been entrusted with managing and fixing the health-care system, spending unnecessary dollars on what appears to be a luxury, that’s a very difficult thing to reconcile.”
AHS stands by car and driver expense claim
In a statement emailed to CBC News, AHS confirmed Cowell went to Edmonton to attend meetings and the Throne Speech.
“[He] 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,” spokesperson Kerry Williamson said.
“The cost of the travel is equivalent or better than airfare, hotel, parking and taxi use. Dr. Cowell’s expenses fall within the Government of Alberta’s expense policy, which allow reimbursement for the expense of using a third-party vehicle, such as a town car or taxi.”
$16 orange juice reminder
This expense claim could haunt the UCP government, according to Williams.
“It looks an exorbitant luxury to the average Albertan. And … the optics are terrible,” she said.
“Just like Bev Oda’s $16 orange juice was quite catastrophic…. Similarly here, anyone who travels Red Arrow [bus] to Edmonton and back, and can work on the way to and back from Edmonton, knows that you can take that trip for considerably less money. You can even fly for less money.”
Oda, a former Ontario MP and minister of international co-operation under then-prime minister Stephen Harper, came under fire for a 2011 trip to London in which she stayed in an expensive hotel, paid $1,000 a day for a car and driver, and notably charged a $16 orange juice to her room.
She ended up apologizing and repaying some of her travel expense claim. Oda later stepped down.
“So the question becomes, does this look like, yet again, entitlement — not being careful about money that isn’t theirs and yet is being provided by folks who are really struggling financially right now,” said Williams.
But Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt sees this as the cost of doing business.
“That seems perfectly reasonable and perfectly normal for me. This is a high-paid executive. That would allow him to have a driver so he could work while he was travelling between Calgary and Edmonton ,” said Bratt.
“When you break it down, it’s roughly $100 an hour. Is this someone that we would prefer to waste more time driving … especially when you’re going to multiple meetings? I don’t have a problem with this.”
Bratt said flying would add time, when you factor in going through security, and expense, with the added cost of taxis.
“We’re dealing with an important executive managing a multibillion-dollar health-care system…. Why shouldn’t he have a car and driver so he can work instead of driving?… Do you want secure and confidential documents on a bus or on a plane,” he said.
“This is a very efficient manner especially when you’re going to multiple meetings.”
Meanwhile, Hardcastle noted other AHS executives and board members claimed less costly travel late in 2022.
“This does seem to be on the higher side of things certainly. There were various others who flew, or who claimed the government’s mileage rate, which would be quite a bit lower than this claim.”
Other expense claims show Heidi Overguard, a member of the now disbanded AHS board, claimed a return flight from Calgary to Edmonton (over two days) to attend a board meeting in October, totalling $863.64. The report included a note citing limited available flights as the reason for the increased fare.
Another board member, Sherri Fountain, claimed $703.64 for a similar flight. This expense report also noted the high airfare.
AHS executives often claim mileage for their personal cars for travel.
For example, Kerry Bales, chief program officer for addictions and mental health, claimed mileage for a round trip from Red Deer to Calgary in November, totalling $160.59. That trip also included a $200.96 hotel stay.
A service like UberX could also be a less-expensive travel option between the cities.
A quick check by CBC News on March 1 shows that a one-way UberX from Calgary to Edmonton would cost approximately $402. The return trip would cost about $341.
“I think it’s imperative for someone who’s working on improving the health-care system to lead by example,” said Hardcastle.
“And I think there is that ethical obligation to be as budget conscious as possible, knowing of course that the health system budget is always a significant issue.”
This content was originally published here.