POLITICS

No excuses for Ornge's failure to respond to fatal collision, critics say

05/10/2012 03:56 EDT | Updated 07/10/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - It's clear air ambulance services in Ontario haven't improved since the government cleaned house at Ornge and installed new leadership, opposition critics charged Thursday.

Both the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats say Ornge's failure to respond to a fatal collision north of Toronto is yet another sign that the publicly funded organization isn't able to do its job.

The emergency call came in at 6:44 a.m. Wednesday, but Ornge said it couldn't send a helicopter because the incoming crew — who had worked overtime the day before — wasn't available until 7:15 a.m., due to federal rules requiring time off between flights.

The injured man was transported by land ambulance from the crash scene in Whitchurch-Stouffville and later died in hospital.

Interim Ornge CEO Ron McKerlie and Health Minister Deb Matthews have "embarrassed themselves with defensive excuses" for Ornge's inability to respond to the emergency, Tory Frank Klees told the legislature.

He was referring to McKerlie's comments that Ornge is required to provide minimum rest periods and that it would take another six pilots at Ornge's bases across Ontario to cover the gaps — which is expensive.

McKerlie also said that Ornge is scheduling flights as best as possible given its tight budget.

That's no excuse, Klees said.

"Apparently, the minister and Mr. McKerlie didn't think to ask why the night shift crew that was scheduled to be on duty until 7 o'clock didn't respond to the call," he said.

The government has been warned many times that Ornge is facing a staff shortage, Klees said. Its previous contractors, Canadian Helicopters Ltd., would have paid a penalty if they failed to respond to an emergency.

Matthews, who accused Klees of "politicizing" the tragedy, pleaded for patience as the ministry reviews what happened.

That work must be completed before any action is taken, she said. The coroner may decide to conduct an inquest as well.

"We want people to get air ambulance service if they need it," Matthews said outside the legislative chamber.

"There are, of course, limitations to that — a finite number of helicopters and planes, a finite number of resources. But we want to make sure that we do the very best we can do to get people the care they need in their time of need."

But Matthews couldn't say why the overnight crew at Ornge didn't work overtime to cover the gap in service.

"Those are the operational issues," she said. "Those are questions that I think we deserve answers to and I'm not going to speculate on what those answers are."

McKerlie's job is to ensure that air ambulances are available and accessible when people need them, said NDP health critic France Gelinas.

"I wanted to believe that things were changing for the better at Ornge," she said. "Unfortunately ... it has not changed."

Ornge has lost qualified pilots and paramedics in the transition from old management to the new government-appointed managers. But if Ornge can't do its job, then something is seriously wrong and Matthews needs to do something immediately, she said.

"I know they're going through a tough time, but to simply say, 'Oh, there will be times when we will fail' — I will never accept this," she said.

"(McKerlie) owes it to us to do better than this. He owes it to us to say, 'We will go back, we will do whatever we can, but I will promise you that we will be there when you need us.'"

The incident is the latest blow to Ornge, which is already under a criminal investigation for "financial irregularities." It receives about $150 million from the government to provide a non-profit air medical rescue and transport service.

Ontario's auditor general, who released his report on Ornge in March, said there was a "real culture of fear and intimidation" among paramedics and other lower-level staff not to step out of line before the government took control of the organization.

Critics say that's driven out many qualified personnel who are desperately needed to maintain services.

Barry McLellan, who sits on Ornge's new board of directors, testified before a legislative committee that the service is still suffering from a lack of qualified pilots and acute-care paramedics.

He said he's also heard that some northern hospitals are reluctant to call Ornge because it didn't respond to their calls in the past.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misspelled McKerlie's first name.