POLITICS
03/01/2012 10:33 EST | Updated 05/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Tories, NDP band together to demand committee to probe Ornge scandal

TORONTO - Forming a legislative committee to investigate Ontario's troubled air ambulance service is "premature," Premier Dalton McGuinty said Thursday as opposition calls for their own probe of the scandal grew louder.

The Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats have banded together in rare show of unity to demand an all-party committee, saying they need to get to the bottom of the problems at Ornge.

Ontario Provincial Police are investigating "financial irregularities" at the publicly funded agency, which has been under fire for months over high salaries, service disruptions and questionable business practices.

A committee would have a broader mandate than police and be able to probe lingering issues around quality of care and crew safety, the parties said.

It could also provide a "safe forum" for potential Ornge whistleblowers who are too intimidated to talk publicly for fear they'll lose their jobs or face criminal charges.

"Those stories need to come out, they need to be heard," said NDP health critic France Gelinas.

Front-line workers at Ornge are jumping ship because some of the people responsible for operational decisions that have allegedly compromised patient safety are still working at the agency, the parties said.

For example, pilots and paramedics were upset over an Ornge policy that routinely delayed response until an ambulance had driven to the scene and confirmed the need for an air transfer. Ornge changed the policy last month to have helicopters respond immediately.

"It's not because they're not dedicated to providing good ambulance care services, it's because right now, the trust has been broken," Gelinas said. "And this issue of trust has to be rebuilt — the faster, the better."

Two more pilots have given notice that they plan to leave Ornge, said Conservative Frank Klees. Yet Health Minister Deb Matthews insists that everything is back on track now that she's replaced Ornge's CEO and board of directors.

"We have to get at those operational issues," he said. "It's about patient care, and the sooner that we can get at some of these issues, the sooner changes can be made and the sooner confidence can be restored in our air ambulance service."

But McGuinty said the criminal probe and the auditor general's report on Ornge must come first.

"If at that time, after completion of that independent, objective, non-partisan work, there remain further questions to be answered, then I think we really should be considering a committee," McGuinty said during a visit to Thunder Bay, Ont.

"But I think at this point in time, it would be premature."

Matthews was more receptive to the idea Thursday, saying she had no objection to a committee if it received majority support in the legislature.

"I support the will of this legislature and if it is the will of this legislature, then I will be supportive," she said in the house.

The two opposition parties are prepared to use their majority in the legislature to pass a resolution to set up the committee, but no date has been set yet.

In addition to the criminal probe and the AG's report, the Ministry of Health's emergency health services branch is investigating 13 incidents related to air ambulance transports, three of which involved deaths of patients.