The driving force behind Ontario’s embattled air ambulance service says he regrets that his compensation has become a lightening rod for controversy and that his vision for creating a global medical transport business has been destroyed. But he says he does not owe anybody an apology.
“I did the best I could,” Chris Mazza, Ornge founder and former chief executive officer, testified on Wednesday. “I poured my heart and soul into what I was doing.”
Dr. Mazza was forced to break his long silence after he received a Speaker’s Warrant, compelling him to testify at a legislative committee probing multimillion-dollar contracts and questionable business practices at Ornge. In a packed hearing room at the provincial legislature, the committee’s star witness was questioned for six hours by MPPs from all three political parties.
He was by turns confident and articulate when discussing his plans to transform Ontario’s “antiquated” air ambulance system into a world-class operation, but quick to anger or get upset when the questions were more aggressive. He often cited his own health, including a recent three-month stay in hospital, as the reason for not answering questions, prompting Progressive Conservative MPP Frank Klees to ask if he had a “selective” loss of memory.
Dr. Mazza, who was terminated last February, portrayed himself as an executive who concerned himself with the big picture at Ornge, leaving operational decisions to others. It was the board of directors who approved his annual compensation of $1.4-million, he said. Executives with aviation expertise negotiated the controversial purchase of a new fleet of helicopters and legal advisers designed a series of for-profit entities.
What emerged by the end of his testimony were two competing pictures of the Health Ministry’s oversight of the publicly funded Ornge. The one presented by Dr. Mazza fuelled criticisms by opposition members that the government was “asleep at the switch” over Ornge.
Dr. Mazza said Ornge was no rogue organization. It kept the Health Ministry in the loop on its plans through quarterly briefings. As well, he said, he asked to meet with Health Minister Deb Matthews in the spring of 2011, after the opposition first raised questions about the air ambulance service, only to be told that Ornge was managing things to the ministry’s satisfaction.
Had Ms. Matthews demanded changes, his response would have been “yes, ma’am,” he said. “They were our principal client. They were the reason we existed.”
Ms. Matthews countered that Ornge officials “stonewalled” her by providing selective information about plans to generate revenue by creating a global patient transport system. When she called Dr. Mazza to a meeting once she became aware of problems at Ornge last December, she said, he sent the chairman of the board and another executive instead.
Dr. Mazza began his testimony by talking about a personal tragedy that motivated the one-time emergency doctor to become Ornge’s founding CEO – his teenage son, Joshua, was killed in a skiing accident in 2006, leaving Dr. Mazza with enormous guilt over his inability to protect him.
“To assuage my guilt I poured every ounce of my strength into building Ornge to save lives, to make him proud,” he said, his voice trembling.
Up until last December, he said, he believed that everything Ornge was doing was positive. Asked by NDP MPP France Gélinas what went wrong, he replied: “I don’t know. To this day, I do not know.”
The low point during the hearing came when Mr. Klees accused Dr. Mazza of using his medical credentials to help support a former Ornge executive’s drug habit.
“I went out of my way to help an individual,” Dr. Mazza said angrily.