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Hudson acknowledges eHealth mistakes Add to ...

eHealth Ontario chairman Alan Hudson - who resigned amid a spending and consulting fee scandal - acknowledges mistakes were made but said he never told anyone to break the rules.

Dr. Hudson broke his silence over the scandal that has rocked the provincial government, prompting Premier Dalton McGuinty to crack down on nickel-and-dime expensing by consultants who billed taxpayers $1.65 for tea while earning $2,700 a day.

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Appointed as board chairman in September, 2008, Dr. Hudson provided his first interview, labelling the allegations of poorly controlled spending as "very serious" and "extremely serious" and said the public has the right to a full explanation.

Looking back, he wishes eHealth Ontario went at a slower pace. Instead of focusing on three areas simultaneously, he wished they had done them one by one.

The three areas of focus were: a diabetes registry, an eHealth portal to centralize information on one website, and issuing prescriptions electronically to not only eliminate handwritten prescriptions but also to eradicate medication errors that cost lives. An ambitious eHealth Ontario was to create provincewide electronic health records, which would ideally be available for every Ontarian by 2015.

"I wish we went at a slower pace and had done it in sequence," the neurosurgeon and former hospital president said in a sombre, sit-down interview Thursday. "We took on an enormous task. I think when you look back, if you had to do it again, the board would be more questioning, more directive in retrospect. But that's all hindsight."

Looking downcast and resigned, Dr. Hudson said mistakes were made.

"What mistakes were made and to what extent mistakes were made will be determined by the audit," he said. "… I have never in this job told anybody to break the rules."

A probe of eHealth Ontario by Auditor-General Jim McCarter is examining, among other things, the three sole-sourced contracts awarded to Courtyard Group, totalling almost $2-million, issued in an apparent effort to deliver results quickly.

It is this spending on consultants - Courtyard's managing director, Michael Guerriere, billed the agency $3,145 a day while serving temporarily as its vice-president of strategy - and the nickle-and-dime expensing by other consultants for tea, Choco Bites, desert squares and beverages that was out of sync with public values.

The spending controversy prompted eHealth chief executive officer Sarah Kramer to resign earlier this month after only seven months at the helm. But the $316,670 in severance pay she received has led to renewed calls by opposition members for Health Minister David Caplan to resign.

Many observers believed Dr. Hudson, who was hand-picked by the Premier to lead the project on electronic health records - would be safe, as his track record as a change agent in health care had been remarkable.

But after two days of soul searching and discussion with colleagues, Dr. Hudson, 71, says he decided on Tuesday to resign, a move that took effect Thursday. Not one board member or anyone from the Premier's office had ever suggested he do so, he said.

While he still leads the provincial drive to reduce wait times for certain medical procedures, a position to which he was appointed in 2004, he will decide within the next month whether to stay in that role.

"I'm angry at myself for not having succeeded," he said during the hour-long interview in which he used the word "disappointed" 16 times in discussing the spending controversy at eHealth Ontario. "I'm not angry at the people who launched complaints; they have a right to do."

Those complaints came after the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario obtained Freedom of Information documents on expenses and lucrative, untendered consulting contracts, such as those awarded to Courtyard Group.

As well, the documents, also obtained by The Globe and Mail's Karen Howlett, revealed details of invoices that caused a furor.

A consultant from Edmonton, Allaudin Merali, billed eHealth Ontario $14.95 for a beverage each day of the six days he spent at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto last November, despite being paid $2,750 a day and provided $75 per diem.

Another Edmonton consultant, Donna Strating, billed taxpayers $1.65 for tea and $3.99 for Choco Bites, even though she received $2,700 per day, though not a per diem like Mr. Merali.

"I feel very strongly and my board feels very strongly that the board has to be accountable, people have the full right to ask questions," said Dr. Hudson. "And they deserve answers."

Dr. Hudson - whose persona has been that of a buoyant maverick in dozens of interviews over the past 16 years - seemed downhearted and dejected as he copes with the eHealth Ontario fallout, perhaps the only time in his career he has been seen as having failed at something.

"As a neurosurgeon dealing with stress, having people dying on the table, I'm used to stress and carrying a very high workload of very tough cases," Dr. Hudson said. "I think the stress of what I've been through in the last weeks is greater than anything I've known as a professional neurosurgeon."

He plans to travel overseas for two weeks soon on a previously planned holiday, saying that he had been working from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. most days.

Dr. Hudson said Sarah Kramer was appointed by the government through anorder-in-council, adding that her contract and its terms -including the $114,000 bonus - was negotiated by government. When that negotiation was concluded, Dr. Hudson said hesignedher contract.

Having said that, Dr. Hudson said he supported Ms. Kramer and was "very pleased" she was chief executive officer.

Ms. Kramer's bonus has been a source of controversy as it was paid to her after a few months on the job, on top of the $380,000 salary she received for moving to e-health.

Though Dr. Hudson was chairman of an agency caught in a spending scandal, he was not being paid. He said he didn't think it was appropriate to charge his $600 per diem when he was already earning a salary to lead the government's efforts to reduce wait times. His salary in that post was $292,653 last year.

While he had previously been effervescent in his description of former eHealth Ontario CEO Sarah Kramer - at times calling her brilliant - on Thursday he sounded more measured and distant.

While her achievements are substantial and she's a "very capable professional," Dr. Hudson said he was disappointed she did not prove to be a successful chief executive officer.

"To the extent that she made mistakes, which have to be shown prominently by the auditing process, I believe it was the effect of this enormous pressure of doing so much in a relatively short time," he said.

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