Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Promised eHealth outside review a sham: NDP

The government has some explaining to do amid revelations that a promised, and then cancelled, independent review of scandal-plagued eHealth Ontario never got underway, the opposition parties said Monday.

Documents obtained by the New Democrats under Freedom of Information laws show no contract was ever signed for PricewaterhouseCoopers to begin a third-party review of the agency — a fact verified by both eHealth and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"There was no contract in place, the board never reached the point where it signed a contract with [PricewaterhouseCoopers] for the specific audit," said Dianna Allen, a senior vice-president with eHealth, adding that preliminary discussions with the agency suggested there would be too much duplication with an upcoming report by Ontario's auditor general.

"When looking at value for money, it was not the best course of action."

A PricewaterhouseCoopers spokeswoman said the company "wasn't engaged with them [eHealth] whatsoever."

The Liberal government has said it cancelled the review because it would have duplicated efforts by Ontario's auditor general, who is also probing the agency.

But NDP critic France Gelinas said the newly released documents show the government never planned to go ahead with the independent report, and added that Health Minister David Caplan and Premier Dalton McGuinty have some explaining to do after suggesting in the legislature that the review was underway and that results could be expected by the end of the summer.

"Their line of defence was always: 'We will go to the bottom of this, we have retained the best third-party, PricewaterhouseCoopers,'" Gelinas said.

Promised review 'empty rhetoric'
"Then, in the middle of the summer, we learn that basically, it was all empty — they haven't done anything, they were not going to expect anything out of them, it was all empty rhetoric."

Gelinas said Caplan and McGuinty "needed to defend themselves so they used those lines, but those lines misled us in the house, they misled Ontarians, and they misled all of the taxpayers."

Caplan had called the PricewaterhouseCoopers review "an additional layer of oversight," and said in the legislature he looked "forward to the recommendations and insights they might have on ways in which we can strengthen the financial controls and the management practices at eHealth."

McGuinty had also fended off questions in the legislature, saying in June: "I think we need to wait for the report coming from PricewaterhouseCoopers. We need to wait for the information and the advice to come from the auditor."

Progressive Conservative Lisa MacLeod, who wants to bring eHealth in front of a sub-committee for all-party questioning, said the lack of any contract showed the whole process was "a smokescreen to save the minister's job."

"It's going to be important, when they return, to fully explain themselves," she said.

"What better way to do that than by acknowledging there is rot at eHealth and that all members of this legislature should have an opportunity, as well as their constituents, to find out how deep that rot is."

The government had said PricewaterhouseCoopers would look into procurement practices at the provincial agency, which is working to create electronic health records for Ontario residents, and would report back this summer.

The plan was quietly cancelled by Caplan last month, after eHealth's board suggested dropping the outside review.

The Health Ministry has said the government has already introduced new procurement rules for all agencies and ministries, the same practices the review would have looked into.

Review dropped at auditor's request
A spokesman for the ministry wouldn't comment on the specifics of any contract Monday, but noted the government was acting on the advice of the auditor and the board of directors.

The additional review was dropped, he said, "mostly because the auditor said it would be a duplication of services," said spokesman Greg Dennis.

"Looking back at it, it obviously was a wise and prudent decision and it didn't cost any money."

Provincial Auditor General James McCarter will report on his investigation of eHealth in September.

In a June 29 letter to the eHealth board, the auditor pointed out that his efforts would duplicate the work of PricewaterhouseCoopers, but added: "Clearly, the decision to engage [PricewaterhouseCoopers] is the board's and the minister's to make."

The latest details are just the latest of a series facts about the scandal that led to the resignation of former eHealth CEO Sarah Kramer and former board chair Dr. Alan Hudson in June, after the Conservatives and New Democrats complained the agency gave out $5 million in untendered contracts to consulting companies.

Documents released by the government since then showed the value of those untendered contracts was closer to $16 million, with the biggest ones going to companies the opposition parties say have ties to the Liberal government.

EHealth was set up last year to create electronic health records after the first provincial agency given that task, Smart Systems for Health, spent $650 million but failed to produce anything of lasting value before it was quietly shut down last September.


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