Former eHealth CEO Kramer defends record
TORONTO - The former CEO of eHealth Ontario defended her role in a spending scandal that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars, dismissing outrage over expenditures as "ironic" and further implicating the government.
In her first public statement since leaving eHealth in June, Kramer defended the thousands of dollars spent by outside consultants hired to bring health records online, saying their help was essential because of opposition to change from "an entrenched and ineffective bureaucracy" that she had been mandated by the government to shake up.
"The sums involved in recruiting this expertise were not negligible," Kramer said in a statement.
"But I -- with the full support of the board of directors -- believed that was an essential investment in turning around what was a badly drifting organization."
"Given the many hundreds of millions that were squandered under the auspices of SSHA (Smart Systems for Health Agency), it is ironic that the much smaller amounts spent on these consultants ... have garnered so much attention."
The Liberal government created eHealth last September to replace Smart Systems for Health, the first provincial agency tasked with creating electronic health records for Ontario residents.
Kramer said her work was supported by both the eHealth board and the government, and suggested new details about the scandal were simply "misleading allegations" from bureaucrats at the Ministry of Health and in the health care sector who were unhappy with the changes she was trying to make.
Kramer resigned abruptly in June along with former chair Alan Hudson, amid revelations that the provincial agency awarded lucrative contracts to consultants without competitive tenders.
Hudson, who had stayed on as a key expert on wait times for the Liberals, is leaving government, according to the ministry of health, which announced his retirement Thursday.
The value of the untendered contracts handed out by eHealth was eventually revealed to be around $16 million, with the biggest ones going to companies the opposition parties say have ties to McGuinty's Liberal government.
Consultants who were contracted by eHealth at up to $2,750 a day were also allowed to bill taxpayers for items that included return flights from Alberta, car rentals and parking, and a $75 per diem to cover laundry and other incidentals.
Kramer herself billed thousands of dollars for limousine rides, including one $400 trip from Toronto to London, before she resigned from her $380,000-a-year job as CEO in June. She was given a $317,000 severance package and received a $114,000 bonus after just months on the job.
Documents released this week showed a promised, then cancelled, independent probe of eHealth never got underway, while a report also suggested Premier Dalton McGuinty was directly responsible for hiring Kramer -- over the objections of civil servants.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper even jumped into the fray Thursday, saying Ottawa has given the provinces a lot of money to create electronic health records and Ontario should take a look at "rectifying problems" in that area.
"Much of the sensationalized media coverage over the last several months has been based on the unchallenged accounts of those interests who opposed and sought to forestall these essential reforms which the government had mandated me to implement," said Kramer, adding the reports were simply an attempt to pre-empt an upcoming probe by the auditor general.
NDP health critic France Gelinas said the statement made clear not only that Kramer knew what she was doing, but that she had a mandate to do it from McGuinty.
"The premier knew that well-connected Liberal consultants were making out like thieves with taxpayers' money," Gelinas said.
"He knew it and he condoned it and she went ahead and she did it."
On Wednesday, McGuinty called hiring Kramer "a mistake," and said the government relied heavily on Hudson's advice in making the choice.
"It's obvious that we made a mistake, but at the time the best advice that we had was that Ms. Kramer ... was performing very well, and based on that advice and the strongest recommendation, I thought it was the right thing to do, we all thought it was the right thing to do," McGuinty said Wednesday.
He has since changed the rules so that contracts cannot be awarded to consultants without competitive tenders, and launched a search for a new CEO.
The premier's office didn't respond to requests for comment Thursday, while the Ministry of Health would only say it looked forward to the report from the auditor general.
A spokeswoman at eHealth also declined to comment, saying it would be best to leave Kramer to elaborate on her own statement.
The opposition has asked McGuinty to fire Health Minister David Caplan over the scandal, and is calling for an inquiry into the handling of eHealth.
"More and more we can see that the minister of health and the premier himself were complicit into what was going on," Gelinas said.
"They need to be held accountable for what happened -- she was held accountable for her part in it; she lost her job."
EHealth was set up last year to create electronic health records after the first provincial agency given that task, Smart Systems for Health, spent $650 million but failed to produce anything of lasting value before it was quietly shut down last September.