Minister tightens leash on troubled air agency Ornge
Published Friday, February 17, 2012 3:05PM EST
TORONTO - Ontario's health minister is tightening the leash on the province's troubled air ambulance service, one day after police launched a criminal probe.
Deb Matthews said Friday she will introduce legislation that will boost oversight of the agency, including more audit and inspections powers.
Ontario Provincial Police are investigating "financial irregularities" at Ornge, which has been embroiled in controversy for months.
"The proposed legislation would enable the government to appoint an investigator or a supervisor in exceptional circumstances when it is in the public interest to do so, as we can do now for hospitals," said Matthews.
"It would also give the government the ability to appoint members to Ornge's board of directors."
Matthews said a new performance agreement with Ornge will include:
- Strengthened conflict of interest provisions
- Increased audit and inspection powers by the ministry
- Debt-control provisions to prevent debt increases without ministry approval
- A new patient advocate and complaints process to ensure patient safety, like the one used in Ontario hospitals.
"Now we need to focus on what Ornge is here for, and that is to save lives," Matthews added.
Ornge receives about $150 million a year from the province to operate a non-profit air medical rescue and transport service.
The publicly funded agency, which set up a series of private for-profit entities, has been under fire for months over questionable business dealings and exorbitant executive salaries.
Police, Ornge and Matthews have declined to say what prompted the criminal investigation. But Matthews has said she called in the OPP after receiving a preliminary report from forensic auditors who examined Ornge's books.
She said what she saw appeared to be an abuse of taxpayer dollars by Ornge.
The team of about 30 auditors was dispatched after Ontario's auditor general complained to Matthews about being stonewalled by the agency during a routine review.
Sources say the OPP were flagged about two questionable financial transactions.
The first was $6.7 million paid by helicopter firm AgustaWestland to an Ornge subsidiary controlled by ousted CEO Chris Mazza. The payments were made after Ornge purchased 12 helicopters for $148 million, using provincial funds.
Ron McKerlie, the agency's interim president and CEO, recently acknowledged that marketing work performed by the Ornge subsidiary did not reflect the amount of money that was paid.
Another red flag was the $1.2 million in loans Ornge reportedly provided to Mazza on top of his generous salary.
It was recently reported that Mazza bought a house in Toronto after receiving a $500,000 housing loan from Ornge's publicly funded operation, and that the loan was approved by the board of directors. The luxurious home is now up for sale for $1.4 million.
Ornge wouldn't confirm or deny whether loans or any other cash was advanced to Mazza. Mazza could not be reached for comment.
The ministry's emergency health services branch is also investigating 13 incidents related to air ambulance transports, three of which involved deaths of patients.
Matthews cleaned house at the agency last month, replacing Mazza -- who was paid $1.4 million a year -- and the entire board of directors. Ornge was also ordered to shut down its for-profit companies.
The Opposition Conservatives are calling for Matthews to step down in the wake of the scandal, saying she should have done more to find out what was happening at Ornge.
Complaints about the agency have been circulating since last spring, but the governing Liberals -- who were aware of Ornge's plans to create for-profit subsidies -- did little to investigate, the Tories said.