09/24/2012 01:02 EDT | Updated 09/24/2018 09:25 EDT

Private company buying for-profit Toronto clinic donated $17,000 to Liberals

TORONTO - Concerns are being raised about thousands of dollars in political donations made to the governing Liberals by a health-care company that needs government approval to buy a private Ontario clinic.

Centric Health Corp., which announced the purchase of the private Shouldice Clinic on Sept. 7, donated nearly $17,000 to the Liberals this year, according to real-time disclosure records posted on Elections Ontario's website.

Health Minister Deb Matthews must decide whether to approve the $14-million sale of the family-run Toronto clinic, but said the money will not influence her decision.

"I can tell you that without any hesitation, I never have and I never will make a decision based on whether or not someone is a donor," she said Monday.

"It just does not enter into my calculation one iota."

Centric Health made a $9,300 donation to the Liberal party in March — the maximum annual amount — as well as other contributions totalling $7,400 in August, during two byelection campaigns, according to the Elections Ontario website.

The donations fall within provincial rules, as parties can collect more than the maximum annual amount during election campaigns. Political parties must report any donations over $100 within 10 business days after the money is deposited.

It's not appropriate for the Liberals to take money from a company that could directly benefit from their decision on the clinic, said NDP health critic France Gelinas.

"In politics, like everywhere else, perception is reality," she said.

In February, Premier Dalton McGuinty visited one of Centric's stores that sells home health-care equipment to promote his government's proposed home renovation tax credit for seniors, Gelinas noted. The company later donated thousands of dollars to the Liberals during the byelections.

The optics aren't good, she said.

"It looks like they're buying their way into the Liberal decision-making machine," Gelinas said.

Centric did not make any financial contributions to the Progressive Conservatives or the NDP this year or during the Sept. 6 byelections, according to the real-time donation records of Elections Ontario. However, the Tories' annual return for 2011 noted that Centric donated $4,650 to the party.

Centric Health was not available to talk about the donations and the purchase of the clinic after more than a week of repeated requests for comment.

The Shouldice Clinic is one of the few private, for-profit medical centres in the province and receives government funding. Ontario outlawed for-profit hospitals in 1973, but exempted existing facilities like the Shouldice, which specializes in hernia operations.

Under the Private Hospitals Act of Ontario, the sale requires the approval of the health minister.

Matthews' decision on whether the clinic will be sold to a corporation could have major repercussions for medicare in the province, critics say.

Both the New Democrats and other groups representing nurses and doctors are calling on Matthews to block the sale, saying the government is passing up an opportunity to convert the clinic to a non-profit facility.

More than 1,000 nurses have written letters protesting the sale, which will open the door to private health care in the province, said Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario.

"This is not the type of experimentation that Canadians or the public of Ontario need," Grinspun said. "This is not what will decrease wait times, it will only make it worse," Grinspun said.

The largest shareholders of Toronto-based Centric Health Corp. (TSX:CHH) are Global Health Investments & Solutions Inc. and entities controlled by GHIS, a private company based in California.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly said Centric Health Corp. did not donate to the Progressive Conservatives in 2011.