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Rob Shaw: Eby selects Penny Ballem as his special adviser on health

Throughout her career, Ballem has made a practice out of telling politicians what they don’t want to hear, when they need to hear it.
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Premier David Eby has hired veteran health executive Penny Ballem as his new special adviser on health, adding yet another civilian expert into his office to tackle a complex issue on which he’s planning major reforms.

Ballem most recently oversaw the government's COVID-19 vaccine rollout. She’ll now serve as the “premier’s health systems specialist.”

“Every province is facing renewed challenges as a result of longstanding impacts of the pandemic on our health-care system,” Eby said in a statement.

“Penny Ballem will be part of B.C.’s team as the premier’s health advocate, putting her at the centre of government to help move priorities forward, and solve and address crises in our health-care system.”

Ballem is the second special adviser to the premier, after Eby in December hired lawyer and former First Nations Justice Council Doug White to serve as his “special counsel” on Indigenous issues.

In hiring Ballem, the new premier is getting a blunt, formidable and notoriously hard worker, whose experience in health and politics spans multiple political parties and levels. She is a medical doctor who, decades ago, worked in the Downtown Eastside. She’s been a staunch defender of harm-reduction and universal health care.

Ballem served as a deputy minister of health in the BC Liberal government from 2001 to 2006, before quitting in high-profile fashion after a dispute with then-premier Gordon Campbell.

Ballem publicly accused his government of making health “policy on the run” and spending much of her job trying to keep politically negative stories from influencing ministers and “decisions that get made two hours after question period when it’s been a bad hair day for the minister, or worse, the premier,” she said at the time in 2007.

“I learned that if you can see a little niggling story that's going to take off and realize the potential for it to create really ugly policy on the run, my job was to prevent that happening.”

From there, Ballem was hired on contract by the government of Ontario to help negotiate with doctors, before taking on an equally high-profile job as Vancouver’s city manager under Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. She served in that pressure-cooker of a position from 2008 to 2015.

The NDP government hired her in 2021 to to head its COVID-19 vaccination campaign – one of the largest, most complex health projects ever performed by the province.

Ballem pulled it off, largely without issue, managing to oversee the creation of a registration system, mass clinics, mobile outreach efforts, specialized Indigenous vaccination campaigns and multiple vaccine brands being delivered in sometimes unreliable amounts by the federal government.

Her help did not come cheap – she was paid more than $400,000 for 10 months of work (the full amount was never released by government).

Eby is expected to draw upon Ballem’s wealth of experience – and occasional bluntness – as he seeks to try and stabilize a health-care system collapsing under the weight of staffing shortages and a post-pandemic surge of flu cases.

The problems are many.

The NDP is struggling to find enough doctors to run its urgent and primary-care centres, which are overwhelmed each morning when they open by people unable to find a family doctor.

Many hospitals are overflowing with patients, including rural and remote facilities where the ER is frequently closed due to lack of staff (Port Hardy’s hospital ER has been closed almost a month).

The ambulance system remains overwhelmed and unreliable, despite a new tentative contract with paramedics.

The province has been forced to delay some non-urgent surgeries due to the struggling system, adding to wait times for things like certain cancer screenings that have risen to alarming levels.

And B.C. is fighting an unexpected battle against private virtual health-care providers, like Telus Health, whose paid services are creeping into the system to take advantage of the growing frustration.

Meanwhile, the cost of health care continues to grow, and it eats up almost 40 per cent of all provincial government spending.

How much of this Ballem will be tasked with fixing is unclear. Eby already has a formidable health minister in Adrian Dix, and a highly competent deputy health minister in Stephen Brown.

But clearly she is expected to play a leadership role of some kind, with direct access to the premier for her proposals.

Throughout her career, Ballem has made a practice out of telling politicians what they don’t want to hear, when they need to hear it.

“They want all the good news, they don’t want any of the bad news,” Ballem said in 2007.

Eby doesn’t seem too worried about that. Her appointment signals major changes ahead.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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