Frank Klees

Holding the Goverment Accountable

Ontario Air Ambulance Service ORNGE

On April 25 second reading of the government's Bill 50 was debated and Frank Klees summarized the shortcomings and the failure of the Minister of Health to step in and ensure that there is proper oversight of Ontario’s air ambulance service. Failure of the Minister of Finance to provide proper oversight. He pointed out that the Premier was properly briefed on this issue and did nothing. Please read the following debate or watch it on the video provided.

 

April 25, 2012

ORDERS OF THE DAY

AMBULANCE AMENDMENT ACT
(AIR AMBULANCES), 2012 /
LOI DE 2012 MODIFIANT
LA LOI SUR LES AMBULANCES
(SERVICES D’AMBULANCE AÉRIENS)

Ms. Matthews moved second reading of the following bill:

Bill 50, An Act to amend the Ambulance Act with respect to air ambulance services/ Projet de loi 50,

Mr. Frank Klees: I have mixed feelings about speaking to this bill, and the reason for that is that it really should be named the red herring bill, because what we have here in Bill 50 is nothing more than the McGuinty government’s attempt to divert attention away from its failure to take action against Ornge, despite repeated warnings of financial irregularities, bloated executive salaries, operational deficiencies and, worst of all, compromising of patient care.

Before I go on, Speaker, I want to advise you that I’m sharing my time with my colleague from Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound, who is the deputy critic for health, and I look forward to his comments as well.

We have now spent a great deal of time at the public accounts committee on this scandal. We have spent numerous hours during question period in the Legislature, bringing to the attention of the Legislature the shortcomings and the failure of the Minister of Health to step in and ensure that there is proper oversight of Ontario’s air ambulance service. We have pointed questions at the Minister of Finance for his failure to provide proper oversight. We have repeatedly attempted to get the Premier’s attention, because we know that the Premier was properly briefed on this issue and did nothing.

Repeatedly—repeatedly—we get nothing from the government other than a defensive posturing. Now here is my question: We cannot understand why, on an important issue like this, there should be any contention among any of us in this place about what the proper steps should be and about condemning those who failed to look after and protect something as important as our emergency air ambulance service.

We should all be on common ground on that issue. But for some reason, members of the government feel they must defend something. What they should be doing, and I say this with a great deal of sincerity—the Minister of Health, I believe, has done a great deal of discredit to her office by defending her role and by insisting that she had no authority and no leverage to step in. By doing that, she has actually admitted that she has failed the people of this province, and we’ve repeatedly called on the Minister of Health to do the honourable thing: Step aside and allow someone else to move forward and provide leadership.

The Minister of Health has repeatedly defended the indefensible, and defended an organization that, quite frankly, has wasted precious, scarce health care dollars. Yet, when I raised those issues in April last year here, from this desk on three different occasions, the best the minister could do—and we can check Hansard—was to defend the organization. I can still hear her words: what a great organization it is, how proud she is of the work that Ornge is doing.

Why did she feel so compelled to defend an organization that she herself had had many warnings about up until that point? She had a letter. If she didn’t want to believe a fellow colleague here in the Legislature, she had a letter sent to her by the Ontario Air Transport Association. This is addressed to the Honourable Deb Matthews, May 4, 2011. Here’s what it said: “We want to advise you that Ornge has seriously misled the industry and all Ontarians about its true intentions. It compromised patient care and created serious personnel and cost issues for the hospitals.”

This is a letter that is five pages long. The minister never even bothered to respond to these people. These are stakeholders, respected people in our province, and she ignored it. This ostrich syndrome bridged three ministers, unfortunately: Minister Smitherman, who actually signed the document, that original performance agreement. What did he do with that? He transferred all the assets of our air ambulance service to Dr. Chris Mazza and his organization for $1. There was not one moment of transparency in that. There was no effort to take this to a public tendering process to determine whether there may be someone else in this great province of Ontario who may have had greater experience, more extensive experience, more capacity than Dr. Chris Mazza. No, it was handed over, behind closed doors, for $1. We thank George Smitherman for that.

Minister Caplan, a minister who inherited the agreement: We know that members of the Liberal Party wrote letters to Minister Caplan. Minister Gravelle wrote a letter to Minister Caplan, the member from Peterborough wrote a letter to Minister Caplan, raising concerns.

What did they do? Let me tell you what they did. Here is what Mr. Caplan, Minister Caplan at the time, did. He referred those people who were complaining back to Ornge. My, that’s leadership. That’s looking after things on behalf of the people of Ontario. That’s showing true leadership. Every one of them failed, and then we come to the current minister, who not only ignored questions regarding Ornge here in the Legislature but turned a blind eye to many other concerns that were brought to her office.

Not until the scandalous goings-on at Ornge were brought to the attention of the public by the media did the minister finally take notice. Why is that? Why is it that it takes a front-page story by the Toronto Star to finally get the Minister of Health to say, “Hey, maybe we’ve got a problem here.” And thank goodness for the media. I say to you, Speaker, you know, in many ways, the media has become, in today’s world, an official opposition to the government. Why? Because the government doesn’t respect the members who were elected here, but they do care whether they’re going to be embarrassed in the public through stories by the media. It’s unfortunate, it’s not the way this is supposed to work here, but that is exactly what’s going on.

Now, among her first litany of excuses for not doing anything, what was the first excuse that we heard in this place from the minister? “The performance agreement didn’t allow me to take action.” That awful performance agreement, and she threw—the minister threw her former colleague under the bus a couple of times for that, and he did fight back, because I recall the articles in the media. In fact, he wrote a letter to the editor in which he said, “Oh, no, no. No, it’s not the performance agreement; it’s the minister who failed to act, and it’s the people in her ministry who failed to act.”

Well, here’s what happened. Repeatedly, the minister stood in this place and represented to us here and to the public that she couldn’t act because the performance agreement didn’t let her. And to legitimize the minister’s excuses, what do we have now? She announced with great fanfare that she’s going to solve the problem by giving us a new, improved performance agreement that we heard about in debate today.

Speaker, we’re debating Bill 50 here because the other blanket that the minister is now covering herself with to comfort herself is Bill 50: “Oh, we need new legislation so that this will never happen again.” Well, it’s interesting, because neither is necessary to protect the public. Neither a new performance agreement nor this bill is necessary to ensure that our air ambulance service complies with the direction of the government.

Under oath today—Lynne Golding, who is a partner of the law firm Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, testified under oath. This was the firm that was advising Ornge. She spoke very clearly about the structure that was incorporated, the reason why it was incorporated. I want to read it into the record, because this was a turning point. Today was a turning point on this issue, and the reason is that the primary reasons that the Minister of Health has been telling us here in the House that she couldn’t act were both unearthed as lame excuses because they were false. Those reasons were false.

The member for Guelph said that we should find ourselves a corporate lawyer to help us understand the complexities of this new legislation. Well, we had a corporate lawyer in our committee today who told us, under oath, that effectively this legislation is unnecessary, and she told us that the performance agreement is unnecessary as well.

Here’s what she said. She told us that the performance agreement that was signed in 2005 was developed over a period of years and included the advice of some of the most senior people in the government. She also told us—and I’d like you to listen to this, Speaker, please.

“From a legal perspective, we ... took as our model an example closer to home.” This was talking about the corporate structure for the original incorporation of Ornge as a not-for-profit. “At that time, there were approximately 150 health service providers operating in the province, offering their services to the public, receiving almost all of their operating funding from the province. Most, but not all, of them are provincially incorporated. They were non-share capital corporations”—just like Ornge—“registered as federal charities with boards elected by their members and without provincial government appointees. What were they? Ontario’s public hospitals.”

Isn’t that interesting, Speaker? She went on to tell us that five of those public hospitals were federally incorporated. What does that do to the excuse that the minister has been giving us that she couldn’t intervene because Ornge was federally incorporated? We have five of our public hospitals that have precisely the same structure as Ornge had. Is the minister telling us that she can’t intervene in those hospitals? Of course not. But what we were told by that corporate lawyer under oath today is that what the minister has been telling us is false. She should be held accountable for that, and we intend to do that.

The other excuse that the minister gave us is that the performance agreement would not allow her to intervene. Here is what the corporate lawyer who was acting for Ornge for many years told us, under oath, today:

“The agreement includes extensive reporting obligations and provides the ministry with three separate inspection rights. It gave the ministry access to records pertaining to the grant funds, whether held by Ornge or under Ornge’s control.

“It gave the ministry the right to terminate the agreement for cause, including failing to comply with any of Ornge’s 15 pages of covenants. If the ministry believed that Ornge was not complying with the agreement but did not want to terminate it—for fear that that would create further risks to patient safety—the ministry could have issued a notice of default or threatened to do so. That usually gets the attention of a grant recipient.”

Speaker, the minister had the authority under the performance agreement to act. She failed to do so. And to stand in her place here, day in and day out, and tell us and tell the public that her hands were tied because of a federal incorporation or because of a performance agreement—Speaker, I have a hard time finding any other word, and you won’t let me use it, but I will say that it was not the truth.

Now, having said that, I’d like to move on, and I would like—

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): Mr. Klees, that was borderline, as you know. You’ve got enough seniority in this place to know that I would ask you to withdraw that one.

Mr. Frank Klees: I will withdraw. It was borderline, Speaker; I realize that. I felt compelled, given the circumstances, to let the people know here what the facts are and—

Interjections.

Mr. Frank Klees: Speaker, I can’t help my frustration when I listened, even a few minutes ago, to the member from Guelph talk about how this new performance agreement would give powers that were never there before. For example, it requires Ornge to keep records of calls that were made. Article 9 of the original agreement—I have it in my hand—the entire article 9 speaks to reporting and records and requires Ornge to keep those records. I don’t know how the member can stand in her place with a good conscience and say that documents must now be kept and that was never the case before.

Article 6 of the old performance agreement talks about documentation and administration, and it talks about the requirement that Ornge had to comply.

Speaker, for those who don’t know, it all sounds very good. But it’s our responsibility here in the Legislature to ensure that the people of this province know what the facts are and know the truth, and we intend to ensure that the people of Ontario find out what that truth is.

One of the interesting things about what is going on here in this Legislature is the fact that we had a very historical vote, Speaker, you’ll recall, not very long ago, on a motion that called on the government to form a select committee of the Legislature, an all-party committee of the Legislature, that would be focused exclusively on discovering the truth about this Ornge scandal. It is intended to be of a broad scope and allow the appropriate time for people to come forward—current employees, former employees, stakeholders, who can come forward under the protection of true whistle-blower protection so that there won’t be reprisals against them as employees or as suppliers. The official opposition, the PC caucus, and the third party, the NDP caucus, voted in solidarity for that motion. Every member of the Liberal caucus voted against it. We still don’t know why. What is it that they want to hide? Nevertheless, we won the vote.

So we have standing now a direction, a motion to the government, to say, “Strike the select committee.” This government is refusing. You heard the member from Guelph talk about how we shouldn’t be ringing the bells, how we should just simply co-operate with this government, let them take us down a garden path, and I suppose she’d like us to join hands and sing Kumbaya while we’re at it. Well, Speaker, it’s not happening.

Interjection.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): I would ask the member from Durham to go back to his seat if he wants to speak. All right? Otherwise, you know the deal here. Thank you.

Mr. Frank Klees: Speaker, we will not do that. We want the government to respect the will of the Legislature. There is an express direction to the government House leader to strike an all-party committee so that we can get to the bottom of this.

The former president of the Liberal Party of Canada came and testified at the committee. He opened up his prepared remarks by saying that unfortunately, the 30 minutes that were allotted per witness were insufficient to deal with the matters before us.

Speaker, I didn’t agree with very much that this witness brought to us that day, but I do agree with that, and that is precisely why we’re calling for a select committee. We do not have the time, within a 30-minute time allocation per witness, one day a week—we now have five weeks left before this House breaks for the summer. That’s five days that we have left to actually hear from witnesses under that restricted format that we have. It’s a perfect play on the part of the government to say, “We want to suppress the information, as opposed to allowing that information to come forward.” That’s why people hear the ringing of the bells. It’s the only tool that the opposition has to get the attention of the government and say, “Will you listen and will you respect the will of the Legislature and give us that select committee so that we can get on with doing our job?”

I want to point something out to the Minister of Health. Perhaps her staff have not advised her of this. One of the reasons that was given for the need for Bill 50 is so that the minister can send inspectors into Ornge if she feels that is necessary. I’m not sure where the minister has been or where her staff has been, but there’s something on the books here in the province of Ontario called the Health Facilities Special Orders Act, RSO 1990—

Mrs. Liz Sandals: Which doesn’t apply to Ornge.

Mr. Frank Klees: —and it defines “ambulance service.” The member from Guelph is carping here, Speaker, saying that it doesn’t apply. Let me tell you: I have it on good authority that it does apply, and here is why it applies. I have it here. The member should look at it. It talks about ambulance service, and it says:

“‘ambulance service’ has the same meaning as in the Ambulance Act.”

It goes on to say:

“‘health facility’ means,

“(a) an ambulance service under the Ambulance Act....” That qualifies Ornge, Mr. Speaker.

It goes on to say, and I’m going to read from the act:

“The purposes of this act are:

“1. To enable the minister to act expeditiously to prevent, eliminate or reduce harm to any person, an adverse effect on the health of any person or impairment of the safety of any person caused or likely to be caused by the physical state of a health facility or the manner of operation of a health facility.

“2. To enable the minister to act expeditiously where the conduct of a licensee or of an officer or director of a corporate licensee affords reasonable grounds for belief that the health facility is not being or is not likely to be operated with competence, honesty, integrity and concern for the health and safety of persons served by the health facility.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, knowing what we know about Ornge?

It goes on to say that the minister may, number one, suspend Ornge’s licence until satisfied that corrections have been made. Ornge comes under section 2.2 of that act. It qualifies.

She would also have been able to take control and operate Ornge for a period of six months and select—here it is. To the member from Guelph, should she choose to look at this act, it says “a person,” a supervisor, to take control and manage the operations. That’s under subsection 7(1.1) of the act.

Once again, why do I call this legislation a red herring? Because it is nothing more than a foil for the minister to say, “I didn’t have the ability to step in.” It’s covering up her failure to do her job; that’s what it is.

Speaker, I want to go to the issue of whistle-blower protection that supposedly is being afforded in this legislation. We’ve called for whistle-blower protection.

I read the legislation. I’m not sure the member from Guelph has. Here’s what it says:

“Whistle-blowing protection

“7.7(1) No person shall retaliate against another person, whether by action or omission, or threaten to do so because,

“(a) anything has been disclosed....”

But then it goes on to say “anything has been disclosed”—to whom? Listen, Speaker: “to an inspector, investigator or special investigator in connection with a designated air ambulance service....”

Speaker, those are the very people that employees and suppliers have been going to about Ornge for the last three years, and none of these people have listened to them. And so now we’ve got whistle-blower protection that is so narrow, that doesn’t apply, and it certainly doesn’t give any sense of confidence to the people who we need to hear from. And so, we have a piece of legislation. The minister can get up, the parliamentary assistant can get up and say, “Oh, we’re going to give you whistle-blower protection.” There won’t be one whistle blown under this protection, or so-called protection, and that’s why we will be submitting amendments to strengthen this.

True whistle-blower protection, if they wanted to be serious about this, would have provided for a formalized process that absolutely welcomes anyone into the process. It should be overseen by the Ombudsman so that whoever comes forward through that whistle-blower protection has the assurance that there won’t be retaliation and has the assurance that they actually will be listened to. This is nothing more than a red herring, and for that reason, we can’t support it in its current form. We will be presenting the minister with some recommendations.

Speaker, I want to leave some time for my colleague, but I do want to just close with these thoughts. I still don’t understand why every minister in this government and every backbencher in this government is taking the defensive posture that they are. I want them to consider their actions, and I’d like them to consider just these few points.

First, with regard to this scandal, there was an initial policy decision to sign over the entire air ambulance service, as I said, of the province to one Dr. Chris Mazza for the consideration of $1. We don’t know what the rationale was as to why there wasn’t a more open process and why Minister Smitherman didn’t invite a more transparent process that would have actually allowed us to move into the consolidation of our air ambulance service on a solid footing.

Second, the internal decision process of the government around this process was riddled with a great deal of confusion. We have been able to table at the committee the fact that senior bureaucrats had serious concerns about this process and about the way this agreement was being drafted.

Third, it’s apparent that once the policy decision was made and the performance agreement was put in place, the government failed at all levels to enforce the very terms of the agreement that they drafted. They had the ability to do that; they failed to do it, notwithstanding the fact that $112 million a year—and it actually built up over the last number of years to the point where it’s now $150 million a year—is being transferred from the Ministry of Health into this organization called Ornge, without any oversight, without any accountability.

Speaker, the minister said she had no control? All she had to do was turn the taps off. All she had to do was say, “No, we’re putting a stop-payment on your cheque, Dr. Mazza.” “Board of directors, you don’t want to comply? You don’t want to change the performance agreement? Guess what? No money tomorrow.” That would have gotten their attention real fast.

But, you know, they were asleep at the switch; either that, or they were convinced, through some very strong and effective lobbying, to turn the other way and allow these people to do what they wanted to do. Allow them to collect their $1.4 million in salaries, allow the board of directors to collect $200,000 a year from a public entity—and by the way, do you care? Does the government care that that took place? I can tell you, Speaker, the taxpayers care a great deal, and the taxpayers want to know why the Minister of Health—if she felt that there was a problem with incorporation, if she felt there was a problem with the performance agreement, why didn’t she just put a stop-payment on the cheque?

Speaker, even the Premier, the ministers, the deputy ministers and an entire platoon of political advisers who were called into briefings about the plans that Ornge had to spawn a group of for-profit companies and to siphon health care dollars into those for-profit companies—not a single one of them raised concerns about those plans.

I don’t know about you; there isn’t a person that I talk to in my constituency, whether they be a business person or whether they be a janitor or whether it’s a housewife—when they see what has happened here, there isn’t one of them who doesn’t say, “Who allowed this to happen? And why didn’t someone say no? Or why didn’t somebody at least say, ‘Wait a minute. I think we may have a problem here. Let’s have a discussion about it’?” But not even that.

Now, the more that we hear and the further that we get into our public hearings, the more evident it becomes that some very, very powerful people who are friends of the Liberal Party were involved in this process. I can tell you that it’s interesting that the former chief of staff to the Premier was retained by a law firm to give them advice on how to best communicate their wants and their plans to the government. Maybe that was just coincidence.

Isn’t it interesting that it was the president of the Liberal Party of Canada who ended up being not only a lawyer, an adviser, a spokesperson—

Interjection: A lobbyist.

Mr. Frank Klees: —and a lobbyist, although he denied that at our committee. I asked him four times, “Did you lobby?” “No, I didn’t lobby. I didn’t lobby anybody.” You know, the Integrity Commissioner of our province and the registrar of lobbyists actually has a different opinion of that and advised him of that in writing. We’ll have to deal with that, and we will deal with that, because that is a perfect example of someone, under oath, saying one thing, and it turns out not to be true. So we’ll deal with that.

Finally, Speaker, I think that we have to deal with this in the best way that we know how. We are members of the opposition here, and what we were hoping was that on this issue, we would find common ground with the government and that we could work together, that we could call in those who are responsible, that we together would find out who knew what and when, and that there would be consequences for those people, not because we relish that there be consequences, but because it’s our responsibility to ensure that there are consequences for those who break the public trust, and that is what happened here.

So we’re here, debating legislation. I say again that this legislation is nothing less than a defence by the minister to cover the fact that she failed in her oversight responsibilities. We see through it; the public will see through it.

The legislation before us is not necessary. There are some areas that we’ll participate with amendments, to at least strengthen that. The performance agreement changes weren’t necessary, but if they want a new and improved agreement, so be it.

Speaker, I want to close with these comments. I want to express sincere appreciation to those front-line people at Ornge who were there in the past. Some of those individuals left of their own accord because they could no longer stomach what they saw. They could no longer be part of the abuse of public dollars. There are others who were let go because they dared to say something about what they saw, and they were fired. And there are those who are still there and who are so wanting to come forward and tell us what they know, not in any vindictive way but because they want to do their part to restore confidence in our air ambulance service.

I want to thank the paramedics. I want to thank the pilots. I want to thank the administrators. I want to thank the dispatchers and the engineers who are on the front lines of our air ambulance service. I want to say to them: We will stand with you and we will ensure that the truth gets known. We’ll ensure that we restore the integrity of our air ambulance service and we’ll do whatever it takes in this place on their behalf and on behalf of the Ontario public who rely on this important service.