Horizon’s CEO, fired by Higgs, feels vindicated but still “groping in the dark” after receiving a $2 million complaint
Seven months after New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, Dr. John Dornan, former president and CEO of Horizon Health Network, feels vindicated by a labor court decision but still “in the dark” about what happened.
“I think my employer, Premier Higgs, would be the only one who knows. And apart from a press release, he hasn’t told me that,” Dornan told CBC Thursday during a phone interview from his Saint John-area home.
It is the first time he has spoken publicly about being fired just four months after his five-year contract expired.
Dornan broke his silence after winning his wrongful dismissal case against the province.
A judge awarded Dornan approximately $2 million, which his attorneys say is the largest labor compensation in the province’s history.
It includes special damages equal to lost salary, pension contributions and health care benefits for the remainder of his five-year contract, and $200,000 in aggravated damages for “breach of the employer’s implied obligation to act in good faith in firing him.” “
“I accept the mourner’s position that his release was in a ‘public, disingenuous and callous manner,'” the judge wrote in his 34-page decision.
Was about to get my hair cut for the press conference
Higgs announced Dornan’s termination during a July 15 news conference in a major restructuring of New Brunswick’s health leadership.
Higgs also replaced Dorothy Shephard as health secretary and removed the boards of directors of Horizon and Vitalité, New Brunswick’s two health departments, citing a growing public health crisis that included the “traumatizing” July 12 death of a Fredericton patient in the waiting room the heard emergency room of the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital.
“It’s not up to me to run the health authorities … but it’s up to me to make sure the right people are able to do it,” Higgs said at the time. “And it starts at the top.”
According to the judge’s decision, Dornan testified at the hearing that an inquest into the death “concluded that it had nothing to do with his leadership.”
Though some people have claimed Dornan was made a “political scapegoat,” he said he doesn’t know if that’s true.
He knows that “it happened very suddenly” – during a phone call that lasted less than a minute.
The mourner’s evidence was that the new health secretary said the “CEO is serving at the discretion of the minister” and “you are no longer employed”. – George Filliter, referee
When Higgs called, Dornan was in his parked car getting his hair cut for the press conference in Fredericton that Higgs invited him and the head of the Vitalité Health Network to the night before after a meeting about the patient’s death in the ER had.
He said Higgs informed him during the call that Bruce Fitch had replaced Shephard as health secretary. Then Fitch went to the phone, so the referee’s decision.
“The evidence of the mourner was that the new health secretary said that the ‘CEO serves at the discretion of the minister’ and ‘you are no longer employed,'” the decision reads.
Received “good feedback”.
Dornan, who previously served as Horizon’s interim president and CEO for about seven months, was “shocked.”
Up to this point he has had “good feedback” from the health secretary and “other people” he has worked with, he said.
“I felt like I was on a positive path. I had initiated many changes at Horizon and was planning to initiate other changes that I thought would help New Brunswickers.”
He cites as examples increasing the number of “skilled” managers and splitting up some “heavy” portfolios, “better management” of doctors and nurses through “more respectful behavior” and moving to Horizon-wide programs in surgery, psychiatry and emergency services.
Planned to address the shortage of primary caregivers
In addition, Dornan said he has a plan to address the province’s shortage of primary health care providers by bringing organizations together to facilitate collaborative care team models.
As it stands, Horizon doesn’t control the rules for a group practice or the funds associated with it, the New Brunswick Medical Society doesn’t control who is enrolled and admitted to primary care in the province, and the Nurses Association of New Brunswick does deal, according to Dornan almost exclusively with the care part.
“My plan going forward was to bring people together who could make decisions to say, ‘Here are the new rules for eligibility and pay and collaboration between people in primary care.'”
Instead, during that brief phone call, he was fired without warning and with no constructive criticism of possible shortcomings or areas for improvement, he said.
“I admitted that I was fired and there was no further discussion after that.”
Per the arbitrator’s decision, Dornan was also told during the call that he would receive an annual salary in lieu of termination.
Higgs told reporters Thursday he was awaiting legal advice on the umpire’s decision, but said he stood by decisions he made at the time and pointed to what he described as improvements in the healthcare system.
“Difficult to find my way”
The days and weeks after the shot were “difficult,” Dornan said.
He had to break the news to his wife and family, friends and colleagues and said he had no reason to give it to them.
He felt he had done “a good job for healthcare” and received “a lot of awards” over his 35-year career.
“So it was difficult to get my head around.”
During the July 15 press conference, CBC asked Higgs what he thinks Dornan hadn’t done in his four months at work that deserved to be fired.
Higgs declined to go into specifics about individuals, but said he believes every hospital needs a head of clinical services to be the “gatekeeper of who’s in, who’s out, what time it is, how quickly we can do it?”
“So that reflects the ability to be on the ground, to go to a hospital and make things happen.”
Dornan, 63, decided to seek legal advice because he felt he had been unfairly terminated and his reputation ruined. He submitted his complaint within days.
In his decision, the judge noted: “It would be reasonable for a member of the public to conclude that the Premier had concluded that the mourner was responsible for this unfortunate death. Furthermore, the only conclusion that could be drawn from this press conference was that the announced cessation of mourning was directly related to the unfortunate death.
“In my view, these statements were made without evidence and unfairly damaged the mourner’s professional standing.”
Dornan tried to look for another job. He had left his role as regional chief of staff for Horizon in Saint John and reduced his endocrinology practice to one day a week by the time he became president and CEO, and those positions were already filled, he said.
Unlucky locally, he applied for jobs in other provinces. These always seemed to start “pretty well” but fell through, he said.
Local reputation affected national employability
“Headhunters said I didn’t get a positive reference when they spoke to people in New Brunswick,” said Dornan, who couldn’t say who they spoke to.
“I realized that my local reputation affected my employability nationally.”
Dornan said he has since asked if Horizon would consider allowing him to extend his clinical time with endocrinology patients and “they have indicated that it is a possibility.”
“So I’m looking forward to clinical practice — really what I did when I started in New Brunswick,” he said.
“I’m happy to be back at work doing what I was trained to do as a doctor and I have lots of energy and years ahead of me and I’m looking forward to it.”
He admits he “would like to spearhead” some of the changes in the healthcare system, such as making it easier to move more primary caregivers into collaborative care team models.
But “health care in New Brunswick isn’t dependent on one person,” he said.
“I think people in positions of authority and power could do that and I’m confident that over time they will.”