Restore accountability to ORNGE air ambulance

By MPP Toby Barrett

Well over a year ago, Ontario’s Opposition first warned that provincial health care dollars were improperly subsidizing a complex web of for-profit companies. Health Minister Deb Matthews ignored these warnings and rather than taking action, she defended Ontario’s air ambulance company, known as ORNGE.

It is ironic that the “A” is missing from ORNGE. My colleagues and I are doing our utmost to ensure that the “A” of accountability is restored, and patient outcomes return as a priority.

The Ontario government employs a handful of officials whose job it is to guard the public trust. It was disappointing to learn at least 12 of these officials – three from Premier McGuinty’s office, a minister and four deputies — were fully briefed on the goings-on at ORNGE in January 2011, but apparently took little action.

It should have been apparent the OPP would be required to investigate these highly irregular transactions. It leaves us all to question why the Premier or his Minister didn’t intervene.

By refusing to act more than a year ago, the government may well have put lives at risk and has betrayed the public trust. Only recently were the OPP were called in to conduct a criminal investigation.

It’s hard not to be cynical about politicians when we see that government control, accountability and oversight were absent. I will not list the red flags in this column as they have been widely publicized in the mass media. As was the case with e-Health, at the end of the day, taxpayers end up footing the bill for the mismanagement.

As this scandal continues to unfold, it has been debated every day in the Ontario Legislature since it returned Feb. 21. The Official Opposition has spent much of its time in the House attempting to put in place parliamentary protocols that will go a long way in protecting people in the future.

For example, in a demonstration of bi-partisanship, the PC and NDP members called on the government to appoint an All-party Select Committee to investigate ORNGE. In the end, we look to the committee to make recommendations on how best to restore confidence in Ontario’s air ambulance system and what structural changes have to be made to ensure that primary oversight of the service is restored. The jury is still out on whether Mr. McGuinty will act on this request.

As well, a March 1st motion from my colleague Sylvia Jones calling for the strengthening of whistle-blower protection was debated and successfully passed. This is necessary to protect those ORNGE employees who were brave enough to raise the red flags. Sadly, Minister Matthews did not support her employees.

I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee and we will conduct hearings with regard to ORNGE. Unfortunately these will be narrow in scope. As legislators we have a responsibility to take this situation seriously and to do this right by conducting more fulsome inquiries.

ORNGE gets about $150 million a year from taxpayers to operate a non-profit air medical rescue and transport service….one would think the government would have a more watchful eye, not only over the money, but also the very lives that may be at risk.

Government must be active keepers of the public purse and must not allow others to reach in up to their elbows!