EDMONTON — Alberta’s health minister says he appreciates that a $1,400 round-trip car service trip by his top administrator looks pricey, but it’s actually value for money.
Jason Copping said the private car and driver allowed John Cowell to take calls and handle sensitive documents while going from Calgary to Edmonton and back in November in order to take in the throne speech at the legislature.
Copping said Cowell, who is the official administrator for Alberta Health Services, has been given a mammoth task to steer a new direction for the $16-billion health system and Copping wants him focused on that.
“I fully appreciate that the appearance of that looks costly,” Copping said at a news conference Friday.
“But we’ve hired Dr. Cowell to come in (and) drive changes faster through our health-care system, through AHS.
“This is all within 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 then return back the same day.”
The costs would be comparable to flying and staying in a hotel, Copping said.
Cowell was appointed to the job in mid-November after Premier Danielle Smith fired the entire governing board of Alberta Health Services, citing its failure to meet the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cowell has been tasked with reducing surgical wait-lists, improving ambulance response times and reducing emergency room bottlenecks.
Earlier this week, he delivered a 90-day update and said while there are improvements across the board, more work needs to be done.
Earlier this week, CBC reported that Cowell hired a car for $1,462.50 in November for the round trip while less expensive options were available.
Alberta Health Services 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 in a statement.
“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 allows reimbursement for the expense of using a third-party vehicle, such as a town car or taxi.”
Opposition NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips said Cowell’s decision shows questionable optics and judgment.
“Renting a sedan service to be sort of driven around the province just smacks of kind of some of the old (Progressive Conservative government) entitlement. You can’t legislate this kind of thing,” Phillips told reporters in Lethbridge.
“You can fly in just as much time and make whatever calls you like at the same time.”
Asked if Cowell should continue using the cars or seek a cheaper option, Copping said the government is always seeking ways to reduce cost and maximize work and meet online when possible.
“There are lots of trips he doesn’t make,” said Copping.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2023.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press