Ornge Air Ambulance – who is minding the store?

By MPP Toby Barrett

We have government for a number of reasons – one being to ensure taxpayers’ money going to government programs is being used appropriately. This has not been the case with the convoluted program known as Ornge.

Investigation of the scandal surrounding Ornge air ambulance has been on hiatus for the past five months because of prorogation of Ontario’s Legislature including our Public Accounts Committee. Testimony before our committee, tell a sorry tale of lack of oversight and accountability in a government program whose decisions can mean the difference between life and death.

Health care in Ontario today and, in this case emergency services and air ambulance services, has tremendous strengths. None are greater than the dedicated and highly trained paramedics, doctors, pilots and other professionals who devote their lives to delivering care. Their first priority must be to ensure safe and timely transport of patients needing air ambulance services.

It was in 1977 that Ontario established a helicopter-based aero-medical program associated with Sunnybrook Hospital. The province contracted with private operators for aircraft, pilots and paramedics. Then, in 2005, the Ministry of Health announced it was appointing a not-for-profit Ontario Air Ambulance Corporation – soon to be renamed ‘Ornge’.

In 2006, the Ministry of Health committed to set and monitor standards to ensure the “end result will be improved care, improved access to service, increasing effectiveness and efficiency of the delivery of service, and the assurance of greater fiscal and medical accountability.”

Since 2006, while funding to Ornge for air ambulance services increased more than 20 per cent, the number of patients served actually decreased by six per cent. As well, Ornge received $65 million for inter-facility land ambulance transfers, projected at 20,000 annually. Ornge is currently providing only about 15 per cent of that projected transfer.

Over five years, Ornge received $730 million from the Health Ministry and borrowed $300 million with virtually no monitoring or oversight. The $300 million was borrowed to finance, among other things, the purchase of 12 new helicopters, 10 new airplanes, and 11 used helicopters.

We can avoid the waste of literally billions of dollars that the current government has directed towards failed, out-of-control agencies like Ornge – with oversight and through transparency. That means maximum transparency to make good decisions, rather than minimum transparency to protect ministers and administrators.

The lack of oversight by the Ministry of Health became apparent again and again during committee testimony. The following exchange between MPP Frank Klees and Emergency Health Services Director Malcolm Bates, is one of countless examples over the 15 days of testimony: MPP Frank Klees: Nowhere in that performance agreement that I can see, unless you can point me to it, does it in any way relieve the Ministry of Health, and specifically the emergency health services branch responsible for air ambulance or ambulance services in the province, of its oversight responsibilities. In fact, there are very specific references to reporting that’s required, to oversight responsibilities. Would you agree with that? Mr. Malcolm Bates: I agree that the Ministry of Health and the emergency health services branch have and had oversight responsibilities and that oversight responsibility was basically set in line by the Ambulance Act, by the performance agreement and by the transfer-of-payment accountability directive.

We now realize there was no adequate oversight until the horses had left the barn.