TORONTO - Ontario's Progressive Conservatives are playing a dangerous game of political brinkmanship by threatening to cut off funding to the Ornge air ambulance service, the Liberal government charged Thursday.
The Tories moved a motion to stop funding Ornge if the Liberals won't agree to a select committee to look into a long-running scandal at the air ambulance service, which set up a confusing web of spinoff companies and hid huge salaries from public disclosure.
Health Minister Deb Matthews accused the Tories of playing politics with people's lives by threatening to cut funding to air ambulances.
"I think it is absolutely outrageous to put forward a motion that would fire all the pilots, fire all the paramedics, ground the aircraft," said Matthews.
"This puts peoples’ lives at risk, make no mistake about it. They are using patients as pawns I think it is despicable."
Conservative Frank Klees said the Opposition had no other option to force the Liberals to allow a more powerful select committee to investigate Ornge, which is also the target of a provincial police investigation.
People should understand the Tories are using the threat of cutting off funding to defend the air ambulance service, its pilots and paramedics, who want to hear all the details about the scandal and possible ties to the Liberal government, added Klees.
"The minister is the one who’s threatening that they’re actually willing to cut off funding rather than give us a select committee," he said.
"That is offensive. That’s offence of the highest order."
The New Democrats wouldn't say if they will support the Tory motion and force the government to stop funding Ornge if the Liberals won't agree to the select committee.
"We’re looking carefully at it," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"I don’t think anybody wants to see the Ornge air ambulance system not be available to patients, but I think that puts the government in a position where they have to think seriously about following the will of the legislature and striking that committee."
The Tory amendment is expected to come up for a vote at committee Monday.
The current legislative committee probing Ornge doesn't have the same powers a select committee would have, said Klees.
"We can broaden the scope of the hearings, ensure that appropriate whistleblower protection is there," he said.
"We’ve heard, at great risk, from some of the front-line people, who are also telling us that they have many more colleagues who would like to come forward, but they’re intimidated by this government and the forum within which this is taking place."
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said the fact the Tories moved to cut off funding to Ornge through a budget amendment, but didn't try to eliminate the new tax on the rich introduced at the NDP's insistence, is proof the Opposition is motivated solely by politics.
"They didn’t table a motion to anything to do with the tax increase they don’t like," noted Duncan.
Auditor general Jim McCarter has criticized the government for failing to oversee Ornge, despite giving it $730 million over five years and allowing it to borrow another $300 million.
Former Ornge CEO Chris Mazza took medical leave last December amid allegations about questionable business deals and his $1.4-million salary.
The committee has heard numerous stories about people who died while waiting for an air ambulance, about understaffing by Ornge, and about helicopters that were so badly designed paramedics often could not perform CPR on patients.
A Ministry of Health investigation found continuous CPR could not be performed due to the interiors of the helicopters, and that patients in respiratory distress couldn't be provided with appropriate care.
Premier Dalton McGuinty has repeatedly rejected Opposition demands that Matthews resign because of the scandal and police investigation at Ornge.