TORONTO — Ontario is asking the banker who recommended privatizing Hydro One to turn his attention to the province's digital health system.
Health Minister Eric Hoskins announced in a statement Friday that he had asked former TD Bank CEO Ed Clark, who headed up an advisory council that helped plan to sell a majority stake in the utility, to examine the system as the mandate of eHealth Ontario expires at the end of 2017.
"First, I would ask you to provide the government with a value assessment of Ontario's digital health assets and all related intellectual property and infrastructure," Hoskins wrote.
"Secondly, please provide us with recommendations related to how to maximize the value of these assets for Ontarians by improving how care is delivered, the patient experience in interacting with the health care system and, indirectly, through the economic value that is created for Ontario's economy."
The government has been using the same language of maximizing the value of assets when talking about the partial sell-off of Hydro One, but when asked if eHealth would be privatized, a spokesman for Hoskins said "absolutely not."
"The purpose of this review is to provide the government with a clear understanding of the agency's full asset value so that we might better understand the way it might be leveraged going forward to help guide Ontario's future digital health strategy," wrote spokesman Shae Greenfield.
"As I previously said, this future does not include the possibility of a sale, or the commercial use of people's health information. eHealth's current mandate is set to expire in 2017, and there is now an opportunity to engage experts in the field and determine what body/bodies are best positioned to maintain and leverage digital health assets to move towards a more patient-centred health care system supported by technology and innovation."
NDP health critic France Gelinas was skeptical.
"I have heard those words before; Premier Wynne uses those words when she means privatization," Gelinas said. "It looks like the Liberals are trying to find a PR-friendly way of saying they want to privatize more of our healthcare system. Ontarians expect their healthcare system to look out for patients, not hand confidential health records to private, for-profit companies."
The Ontario Health Coalition also said it is "deeply concerned" that the valuation would look toward for-profit privatization.
And it expressed disappointment at the timing of Hoskins' statement.
"Announcements of this sort should not be made by issuing an electronic media statement on a Friday afternoon leading into a long weekend," it said.
"Choosing to reveal these plans with such a process leads to the appearance that the government is trying to avoid public scrutiny."
PC health critic Jeff Yurek said the timing of the announcement suggests the government is trying to hide something.
"By making an announcement that would impact a health care system already in the midst of massive turmoil, this government is simply creating more uncertainty," Yurek said.
"Ontario's patients deserve answers from this government."
Protection of personal health information is paramount in this review, Hoskins wrote, telling Clark to seek advice from the information and privacy commissioner.
"Enormous energy, resources and intellectual effort have been dedicated to ensuring the integrity and privacy of people's personal health information," Hoskins wrote. "The purpose of this work is to better understand the value of our digital assets to help guide, in combination with the advice of other experts, Ontario's future digital health strategy."
Since eHealth was established in 2008, nearly all Ontario residents have electronic health records, including e-records used by family doctors and almost all hospital-based diagnostic imaging is digital, with key lab results available through a provincial information system, Hoskins wrote.
In 2009, then health minister David Caplan was forced to resign when eHealth Ontario was the focus of a major spending scandal after auditor general Jim McCarter found that hundreds of millions of dollars had been wasted due to a heavy reliance on outside consultants and poor strategic planning.
The provincial agency was given a $1-billion budget to develop electronic health records, but a lot of the money went for untendered contracts given to highly paid consultants who then billed taxpayers for additional expenses.