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Ontario dismisses entire board of air ambulance service

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty speaks to the media in front of Health Minister Deb Matthews at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011.


The Ontario government has cleaned house at the province's air ambulance service, dismissing the entire board of directors amid a growing scandal over accountability and oversight that also extends to patient care.

A government official revealed Wednesday evening that the Finance Ministry has assigned 28 members of its forensic audit team to work on untangling a web of private, for-profit companies created by insiders of Ornge, the entity responsible for co-ordinating all aspects of the province's air ambulance services.

The team includes 15 forensic auditors who are working out of Ornge's offices – a number that has climbed from 10 since the beginning of January. Some of the auditors were working late into Wednesday evening, along with the senior bureaucrat the government parachuted into Ornge.

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At 7:30 p.m., interim chief executive officer Ron McKerlie stepped out of the main doors of Ornge's headquarters in Mississauga to grab some dinner that his wife brought to him.

"It's been a long day," Mr. McKerlie told a Globe and Mail reporter before ducking back inside. "Don't mind me."

Ornge is just the latest problem involving free-wheeling spending on the McGuinty government's watch. But Ornge is breeding a heightened sense of urgency around Queen's Park because it threatens to eclipse spending scandals involving eHealth and the province's lottery corporation back in 2009 because the stakes are so much higher.

Ornge is responsible for performing live-saving CPR on patients and ferrying them from accident scenes to a hospital. But it is also facing questions about whether patient care was compromised. The Globe has reported that the Health Ministry's Emergency Health Services Branch is investigating 13 cases, including three deaths. Most of these incidents relate to complaints about either response times or the adequacy of Ornge's new helicopter fleet.

Health Minister Deb Matthews is on the defensive over Ornge. Ms. Matthews was aware that Ornge planned to create new business ventures that would make money by trading on the expertise of the taxpayer-funded air ambulance service. Ornge was to receive just 3 per cent of the revenue from these businesses, and the new ventures would pocket the balance, according to a copy of a Stakeholder Briefing dated Jan. 19, 2011 and signed by chairman Rainer Beltzner.

"We were aware of the restructuring," she told reporters on Wednesday. "But we're not talking about restructuring here. We're talking about abuse of taxpayer dollars. That's the problem."

Ms. Matthews moved swiftly on Wednesday to attempt to douse the controversy. Mr. Beltzner, along with the three other directors, were asked to step down. Mining executive Ian Delaney was appointed chairman of a new seven-member board.

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The new board also includes Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre chief executive officer Barry McLellan and Charles Harnick, a former solicitor general in the Harris government.

Progressive Conservative MPP Frank Klees has been raising questions about Ornge for more than a year and is calling for a coroner's inquiry to investigate every emergency call Ornge was involved in where the patient died.

Mr. Klees said the new board is "a step in the right direction. ... These are competent people."

The ouster of the board came one day after Mr. McKerlie terminated 18 administrative jobs at head office. As well, Maria Renzella, executive vice-president of corporate services, has gone on medical leave, according to sources. She is the second top executive to do so – Ornge founder and chief executive officer Chris Mazza went on "indefinite" medical leave in December.

Several employees, who wanted to remain anonymous, said details were scant and rumours were flying around the office. One woman, who worked in accounting, said staff were expecting more pink slips to be handed out over the coming weeks, while another male employee in patient care said many were "happy with the shake-up" in management. "We just want to get back to the positive work we do, and really have nothing to do with this mess."

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About the Author

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

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