Ornge's head of aviation has been stripped of his executive duties and put in charge of a transition project, leaving his fate at Ontario's air ambulance service uncertain.
Ornge interim chief executive officer Ron McKerlie confirmed Wednesday evening that Rick Potter is no longer chief operating officer of the service's aviation division, effective immediately.
Mr. Potter is one of only a handful of top executives left at Ornge, following the departure of chief executive officer Chris Mazza and several of his close associates.
The Ontario Provincial Police are investigating a series of private, for-profit companies created by Ornge to determine whether any public funds were used for these ventures. Ornge receives $150-million a year to operate the province's air ambulance service.
Mr. Potter is now responsible for managing the changeover of four helicopter bases to Ornge from Canadian Helicopters Ltd. The four bases in Toronto, Sudbury, London and Ottawa had been operated by Canadian Helicopters, which provided pilots for the aircraft and maintenance on them. But in October of 2010, Ornge notified the company that it was getting into the aviation business itself and that it planned to terminate the contract, effective March 31 of this year.
"I want to advise you that effective immediately, Rick Potter has been assigned to work exclusively on the rotor wing transition project," Mr. McKerlie said in the statement.
No announcement has been made about Mr. Potter's status beyond the completion of the rotor transition, Ornge spokesman James MacDonald said Wednesday evening.
Mr. Potter played a key role in Ornge's purchase of 12 helicopters from Italy's AgustaWestland for $148-million. Two of the helicopters are up for sale in Pennsylvania and have never been outfitted as air ambulances.
The medical interiors of the helicopters contain design flaws that make it difficult for paramedics to perform live-saving CPR on patients. The Ontario Health Ministry is investigating whether the flaws played a role in the deaths of two patients.
The Ontario government has been under pressure by opposition members to fire Mr. Potter, amid a number of problems with Ornge's aviation operations and reports that he misrepresented his academic credentials in a document sent to investors.
Zita Astravas, a spokeswoman for Health Minister Deb Matthews, said on Wednesday that the decision to demote Mr. Potter was made by the new leadership at Ornge.
Ms. Matthews parachuted Mr. McKerlie, a senior bureaucrat, into Ornge in January and also replaced the entire board of directors.
Progressive Conservative MPP Frank Klees, who has led the opposition charge on Ornge, has raised questions about whether Ornge should continue to own and operate a fleet of air ambulances.
Ornge cannot transport patients in need of medical care to U.S. hospitals by helicopter because it does not have the go-ahead from regulators to fly the air ambulance over the United States.
The revelation was contained in an internal Ministry of Health briefing document. Ornge anticipates that it will have approval from the Federal Aviation Authority by April 1 to enter U.S. airspace. As an interim measure, Ornge is transporting patients by helicopter to the nearest helipad on the Canadian side of the border, and then taking them by U.S.-based land ambulance to hospitals in Detroit, Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y.