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Government & policy

More untendered contracts uncovered at eHealth Ontario

TORONTO – The value of untendered contracts awarded by eHealth Ontario is much higher than what was originally reported, with an even larger amount going to the Toronto-based Courtyard Group. According to a new report by CBC News, Courtyard Group had secured an $8.5 million contract in April of this year, about half of which was untendered.

It was originally reported that eHealth Ontario had handed out about $5.5 million in consulting contracts without competitive bidding. In June, the CEO and chairman of the provincial agency both resigned after a barrage of negative publicity about the untendered contracts, along with the criticism of high salaries and bonuses, as well as questionable use of public money on such things as meals and snacks.

Premier Dalton McGuinty has apologized for the spending and expense abuse scandal at eHealth, and changed procurement rules for all ministries and agencies to require competitive bidding.

According to the CBC report, eHealth spokeswoman Deanna Allen said some of Courtyard’s $8.5 million contract involved work at the Ministry of Health and at the precursor to eHealth that was merged into the new agency.

The New Democrats want the provincial auditor general to investigate links between Courtyard and the Liberal government, noting that one of its founders, John Ronson, was chair of the Liberals' 1995 election campaign.

EHealth Ontario was set up last September to replace another provincial organization, Smart Systems for Health Agency, which had spent approximately $650 million trying to create the infrastructure for a province-wide system of electronic health records and solutions. Government officials concluded the agency wasn’t producing value for the money, and folded it into eHealth Ontario.

On a related front, the Ontario government has released new rules that require all consulting contracts over $100,000 to follow a competitive hiring process, regardless of dollar value. Consultants will also no longer be entitled to bill for hospitality, food expenses or incidental costs.

Under the new regulations, consultants will be eligible for transportation and accommodation expenses related to their assignment, only if they have been pre-approved. The new rules will apply to all Ontario ministries and extend to agencies such as eHealth Ontario, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One.

EHealth officials have said the sole-sourced deals were necessary because they were on an urgent timeline – their goal is to get the province’s health records online, so all of a patient’s doctors have ready access to them, by 2015.

The new rules take effect immediately. Government agencies must now hold an open competitive process on all contracts worth more than $100,000. Exceptions will be made for unforeseen urgency and confidential projects or where only one supplier is able to meet the requirements.

Meanwhile, Ontario Health Minister David Caplan has been under fire from opposition critics for quietly deciding to scrap an investigation into the eHealth agency.

Caplan allowed the eHealth board to opt out of a third-party audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The decision comes six and a half weeks after he first ordered the probe and days before it was expected to report its findings.

An eHealth spokeswoman said that in the more than six weeks since the probe was first ordered, no work actually took place. Instead, auditors and eHealth management spent weeks discussing the scope of the investigation before deciding their work would duplicate an investigation already under way by Auditor General Jim McCarter, who is expected to release a report on the agency in September.

Posted July 30/09.