The man who has led the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority during some of the most momentous changes in the city's hospital system has decided to retire.
Réal Cloutier, 60, the WRHA's president and CEO, announced his decision in a memo to staff on Thursday. He is expected to remain on the job until the end of the year while an interim leader is put in place.
Cloutier's departure creates a leadership vacuum at the top the province's largest health authority as the hospital system adjusts to a major reorganization that has included the closure of three emergency rooms.
But he isn't the only major player to be leaving.
In late September, Lori Lamont, the WRHA's chief operating officer and vice-president of nursing, also retired.
Dr. Ainsilie Mihalchuk, the region's acting chief medical officer, is leaving at the end of the year for another job outside the city health system.
Health Minister Cameron Friesen wished Cloutier well in his retirement and downplayed the effect of having to replace the WRHA's three top positions in a matter of months.
"There's a lot of talent and a lot of capacity within the WRHA right now, and we know that even with the departure of some people, we have others left in the system who know the enterprise, who understand the changes that are underway and (who) will be rising into leadership," he told the Free Press.
Cloutier said it was time to retire after 31 years in health care. He had only been CEO for a year after serving in the role in an interim capacity for 16 months.
He said that most of the heavy lifting in modernizing the city's hospital system has been done.
The main tasks ahead, he said, are to reduce emergency department wait times and to ensure there is a sufficient number of physicians and nurses deployed where they need to be.
He said he would never have considered leaving before the reorganization was completed.
Like Friesen, Cloutier said there's plenty of local talent to fill any leadership vacuum.
"In health care, we are blessed with having very good people who are very competent, who are that next generation of leaders," he said. "I'm very confident that we're going to have a leadership team in place that can carry on."
In response to a reporter's question, Cloutier said his departure is not connected to the health system changes. He said the hospital reforms had been discussed for decades and came largely from within — not dictated by the provincial government. The consolidation of services "was absolutely the right thing to do," he said.
Cloutier said his wife has been retired for five years and he's been feeling the pull to retire.
"To be able to lead an organization through a generational change like we've done has been a real privilege and honour. Has it been easy? God, no. We've been putting in tons of hours, working harder than I probably ever have in my career, and I'm a pretty hard worker," he said Thursday.
Cloutier said Mihalchuk's appointment had always been considered temporary and the region is actively recruiting for a permanent chief medical officer.
Mihalchuk took over the position on an acting basis after the departure of Dr. Bruce Roe in June. He had been in the role since September 2017.
Sources said at the time that Roe's leaving was tied to fallout over the city hospital reform process.
He left five weeks after consultant Dr. David Peachey delivered a blunt assessment to government on how the process was going. Peachey reported "seriously low" morale and patient safety concerns at Concordia Hospital and raised questions about whether St. Boniface Hospital's ER was prepared for the additional patients it would be receiving.
On Thursday, Friesen thanked Cloutier for his service and dedication at a time when "significant leadership capacity was required."
"There was never a moment through his leadership time that it was ever in doubt that he held patient safety, better results, better care and the people who work in the system in the highest regard," the minister said.
Cloutier was one of the WRHA's first employees when the organization (initially called the Winnipeg Hospital Authority) was formed in 1997. Prior to that, he worked at St. Boniface Hospital as director of planning.
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