Frank Klees

Frankly Speaking

Frankly Speaking
Article by Frank Klees, MPP
As Published in The Auroran

January 17, 2012

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ORNGE: Greed, Deceit and Gov't Mismanagement

ORNGE ....... You may have seen the word emblazoned on an orange-coloured helicopter, and wondered why the letter "A" had been left out of the word ORANGE. That was my reaction when I got my first glimpse of Ontario's newly-branded air ambulance helicopters, freshly painted in bright orange and boasting the now infamous 'ORNGE' logo.

Little did I know at the time, how significant the missing letter would become and how much of my time and energy these helicopters and the people behind them would consume in the months ahead.

What is ORNGE ?

In 2005, then Health Minister George Smitherman signed over Ontario's air ambulance services to Dr. Chris Mazza for a nominal dollar. There was no competitive bidding process for the so-called Performance Agreement under which Dr. Mazza was mandated to deliver Ontario's air ambulance services under a not-for-profit entity . Mazza's first priority was a costly re-branding exercise that resulted in the now infamous ORNGE name and orange colours that drench everything from helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to the hand-crafted couches in the lavish corporate headquarters. Welcome to ORNGE, your air ambulance service, publicly-funded to the tune of $150 million annually.     

What's the real story behind ORNGE ?

There are really two stories........

One is about the greed and abuse of health care dollars on the part of a group of people who were entrusted to deliver essential air ambulance services in our province and brazenly levered that public trust to line their own pockets. Examples of that greed include:

- The President and CEO of ORNGE drawing a paycheck of $1.4 million;

- Setting up a separate company through which the exorbitant incomes of the CEO and other executives where paid, thus avoiding disclosure on the province’s salary disclosure list;

- Doling out $600,000 for business degrees for ORNGE executives at overseas institutions;

-A $6.7 million fee was paid to one of the for-profit companies by the Italian company that sold Ornge its 12 new helicopters. A questionable transaction at best.

The second story, which is even more scandalous is the fact that the Premier, the Minister of Health and senior bureaucrats ignored numerous warnings that a scandal was brewing, that millions of tax dollars were being siphoned to feed the personal greed of a handful of political insiders and that the quality of our air ambulance service was being eroded. These warnings came not only in the form of my questions to the Minister in the legislature but also letters and emails from stakeholders and employees including paramedics, air ambulance pilots and the Ontario Air Transport Association.

January 9, 2012 Press Conference ........

Given the McGuinty government's refusal to act on our warnings about ORNGE, I convened a press conference at Queen's Park in an attempt to increase public awareness of the issue and to call on the government to immediately install an oversight team to take over the operations of ORNGE and to strike a Select Committee of the legislature for the purpose of uncovering the truth about the state of affairs at ORNGE.

Following are excerpts from the transcript of my statement at the press conference:  The complete statement as well as video of the press conference can be found on my website click here

" Our objective today is twofold:

First to ensure that the McGuinty government is held accountable for its failure to exercise proper oversight of Ontario's air ambulance services, and for allowing public health care dollars to be used to subsidize a web of private businesses, while allowing the level of service to patients to deteriorate.

"Second, we want to put the Management and Directors of ORNGE and its several for-profit affiliated companies that have been spawned through the subsidization of public health care dollars, on notice, that we will be taking every step available to us to expose what we believe has been nothing short of a breach of trust by an organization that was entrusted to deliver Ontario's air ambulance services.

"...... With regard to the recent claims by the Minister of Health that she was not aware that there were numerous problems at ORNGE, nothing could be further from the truth."

I pointed out that I had warned the minister about questionable business practices at ORNGE and the lack of accountability and oversight on three separate occasions in the legislature, and that rather than act on the information, the minister insisted that all was well.

I concluded the press conference by stating that based on the government's track record of ignoring what are clearly breaches of its agreement with ORNGE, we do not have confidence that the minister will take the necessary steps to restore confidence in Ontario's air ambulance services.

I called on the Premier to do two things: First, to direct the Minister of Health to install an oversight team at ORNGE pending the outcome of investigations and the Auditor General's report on ORNGE; and second, to strike an All-Party Select Committee that would have the authority to call witnesses for the purposes of getting to the bottom of what has been going on in this organization.

ORNGE CEO and Board of Directors Fired

On January 11th, just 48 hours after the press conference, the Minister of Health announced that the CEO of ORNGE and its Board of Directors had been fired. Ron McKerlie, a Deputy Minister would temporarily assume the role of president and a new volunteer board would be appointed.

“It became abundantly clear there were issues at ORNGE that required new leadership," said Health Minister Deb Mathews in announcing the change.

No doubt the Minister and the government are hoping that this will be the end of their troubles at ORNGE. We believe it's only the beginning. There are still many questions to be answered and when the truth is known, I believe ORNGE will make the E-Health scandal look like a garden party.

Why was the "A" left out or ORNGE ?

It stands for ACCOUNTABILITY and once again the McGuinty government has failed to both demonstrate and demand accountability from those entrusted with delivering essential public services in our province.  In the end, it’s the government that must be held accountable.

As always, I look forward to your comments and advice. You can contact me through my website at www.frank-klees.on.ca or by phone at 905 750 0019.

Questions to the Premier and Minister of Health April 2011