Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ex-eHealth Ontario CEO expensed limo rides!

The ousted CEO of scandal-plagued eHealth Ontario liked to travel in style on the taxpayers' dime, billing repeatedly for limousine rides, while members of the agency's board were reimbursed for flights from as far away as Florida to attend meetings in Toronto.

After weeks of watching details trickle out about spending and expense abuses at eHealth, the Liberal government on Wednesday released hundreds of pages of receipts, day-planners, meeting minutes and other documents from the troubled agency.

The government wanted to be as transparent as possible, said Health Minister David Caplan, so it released all of the documents at one time. But the opposition parties accused him of trying to bury the story under mountains of paper.

"I think it's in the public's interest for us to be transparent and accountable, and that's why we're handing out the information in an open and unaltered way," Caplan said in an interview.

The New Democrats dismissed Caplan's explanation.

"They're trying to flood everyone with information with the hopes the whole smelly mess will go away sooner rather than later, and I don't think the people of Ontario are gong to buy that," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

EHealth CEO Sara Kramer resigned in June, as did board chair Dr. Alan Hudson, after the opposition parties complained about $5 million in untendered contracts awarded to consultants by eHealth, a figure that has since grown to about $15 million.

Six large binders full of documents released Wednesday show eHealth, and its predecessor agency Smart Systems for Health, spent nearly $82 million on consultants in 2007 and 2008. It's not clear how many of the contracts were awarded without competitive bidding.

"It keeps growing and growing," said Opposition Leader Tim Hudak.

"I worry this is just the tip of the iceberg of the McGuinty government growing far too comfortable and far too fat in office," the Progressive Conservative party leader said.

Board members billed for Florida flights, road tolls
The papers show Kramer billed for limo rides whenever she travelled for eHealth, including one $400 ride from Toronto to London, along with seeking reimbursement for meals at expensive restaurants.

EHealth board member Khalil Barsoum billed taxpayers nearly $2,400 for a round-trip flight from Florida, car rentals and road tolls to attend a board meeting in Toronto.

"This kind of abuse of taxpayers' dollars is outrageous and I want to know whose head is going to roll," said Hudak.

"To have someone flown back and forth to board meetings is the height of entitlement and that really is outrageous," added Horwath.

EHealth said Wednesday it will try to lower the travel expenses by holding future meetings when Barsoum is already in Toronto, but Caplan said the board would no longer approve the out-of-country travel claim.

"I've been assured that moving forward, the board members' travel expenses from Florida will no longer be reimbursed," said Caplan.

Another board member who lives in Ottawa, Heather Sherrard, is reimbursed for flying back and forth to Toronto to attend eHealth meetings, while Toronto-based board member Michael Decter billed for $10 cab rides to and from each meeting, for which he is paid $380 to attend, and another $380 for preparation time.

Both opposition parties are angry with the government for cancelling a promised third-party review of eHealth by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which Caplan had promised would "provide us with the proper advice, guidance and recommendations."

After the eHealth documents were released, Hudak said, "I think we understand now why the Liberals quietly dropped the PriceWaterhouseCoopers review in the dog days of summer.

"Somebody's head's gotta roll. The minister has to go."

The New Democrats also called for Caplan's head over the eHealth scandal, which also saw consultants who were being paid $2,700 a day billing taxpayers extra for snacks and beverages.

"The stench of this scandal continues to grow and the government has done nothing to put it at the feet of the minister, which is where it should have been," said Horwath.

EHealth Ontario was set up last September to replace Smart Systems for Health, another provincial agency which had spent $650 million trying to create electronic health records, but produced virtually nothing of value.


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