Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ontario not guarding tax dollars enough: auditor

The Ontario government is doing a poor job of determining who is eligible for welfare and disability aid and hasn't done enough to recover more than $1.2 billion in overpayments, says the province's auditor general.

In a report released Monday, Jim McCarter said government supervision of social assistance programs is not strong enough.

McCarter cited one example in which the Community and Social Services Ministry failed to follow up on five tips about a family that received $100,000 in taxpayer-funded social assistance.

"If we can tighten down and make sure that only people [who] are entitled to get money actually get the money, you know it does give the government some flexibility when they're looking to make sure they can look after those people that really need the money," he told reporters just before the release of the report.

The government has a total of $663 million in overpayments under the Ontario Disability Support Program, the auditor's report said.

Meanwhile, the number of unrecovered payments made under Ontario Works, the province's welfare program, stands at $600 million.

"Once you've overpaid the money out, it's very difficult to get it back. The key thing with these two programs is you've got to stop the overpayment from occurring in the first place," he said.

The government said there was already $1.1 billion in overpayments when the Liberals came to power in 2003, but admitted that amount has grown since then.

McCarter stressed in the report that "public funds were often not being spent with enough due diligence and oversight to ensure that taxpayers were getting full value for their hard-earned tax dollars."

The government needs to be more vigilant in ensuring that only those people actually eligible for benefits receive them, said the report, which is released annually and serves as a report card on the government's performance.

"It is not the absence or inadequacy of rules or guidelines that was the problem," McCarter wrote.

"Rather, I believe that there is a culture or mindset among some of those accountable for managing and delivering government programs that does not always prioritize getting maximum value for the taxpayer's dollar," he wrote.

Big markups for health-care equipment
McCarter pointed to the health-care sector for more examples of inefficient spending, saying the government isn't trying hard enough to get the best deals on medical devices like hearing aids and wheelchairs.

The government spent $347 million last year on assistive medical devices, up 90 per cent since the last audit in 2002.

McCarter found that companies selling those devices were charging hefty markups, sometimes more than double the cost for which they would ordinarily sell.

"We feel they're overpaying, and significantly overpaying for a number of things that they're purchasing," McCarter told reporters just before the release of the report. "Clearly they could be acquiring these devices for a lot less money."

For example, McCarter found that the government-approved price for a monitor that typically costs vendors around $250 is $1,332 — more than a four-fold markup.

The report also says the Health Ministry knew some health-care workers who prescribe the devices were potentially in a conflict of interest because of connections to the sellers, yet only rarely took action.

McCarter added he is concerned about how much the government is paying for its telephone medical advice service, Telehealth.

It costs the government $39 per call, twice the price in other provinces, McCarter said.

"We actually found they'd really done no analysis or no followup whatsoever about why we're paying $39 and other provinces could be paying significantly less," he said.

One out of every four callers hangs up before getting through to a nurse, he added.

McCarter also said the government needs to better promote Telehealth because the number of calls each year is declining.

More work on bridges needed
The auditor's report also said Ontario's roadways also need more attention, as inspections of bridges across the province are not thorough enough.

At least 180 bridges are deemed to be in poor condition, but the government has not budgeted any money in its capital plan for the next year to fix one-third of them, McCarter wrote.

He found most of the 2,800 bridges under provincial jurisdiction are not being adequately inspected.

There are another 12,000 bridges that are the responsibility of local municipalities across Ontario, but "the province doesn't have the authority to inquire into the adequacy of municipal bridge inspection and maintenance processes."


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