The Ontario hospital CEO who went to the Dominican Republic over the holiday break was removed from one of his positions but his fate at another remains unclear after the board of directors met on Wednesday to discuss his trip amid an outcry over his decision to travel despite pandemic advice.
Tom Stewart, chief executive of St. Joseph’s Health System in Hamilton, travelled to the Dominican Republic during a 2½-week vacation. The health system’s board of directors met on Wednesday to discuss the situation, said St. Joseph’s spokesman Patrick Moore, who said he was “unaware” of any outcome from the meeting.
But late Wednesday, Dr. Stewart was removed from his other role as CEO of the Niagara Health network of hospitals. In a statement, the board of directors at Niagara Health said it had decided to end an agreement with St. Joseph’s to purchase CEO services, effective immediately. “The Board of Directors of Niagara Health would like to thank Dr. Tom Stewart for his valuable service to our system and the people of Niagara,” the board said. Lynn Guerriero, current president of Niagara Health, will become president and interim CEO.
On Tuesday, Dr. Stewart resigned from his roles advising the provincial government on both the COVID-19 science and command tables. But he remained at the helm of the hospital system, which also operates health care facilities in Guelph, Brantford and Kitchener. His 2019 salary with taxable benefits was $629,000, according to the province’s public disclosure list.
The revelation about the hospital leader’s travel came just days after Ontario’s finance minister, Rod Phillips, resigned after taking a December trip to the exclusive Caribbean resort island of St. Barts. Several federal politicians were also found to have travelled during the break, and in Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney’s municipal affairs minister and chief of staff also resigned, and five MLAs were demoted. Dr. Stewart declined an interview request through a spokesman on Wednesday.
Federal and provincial officials have urged Canadians for months to avoid all non-essential travel outside of Canada and continue to advise it as a more contagious variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads around the world.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford declined to comment on Dr. Stewart’s situation, saying it was up to the hospital system’s board to decide what happens.
“They’re going to have to make a tough decision. I made the tough decision with my finance minister,” Mr. Ford said Wednesday during a press conference announcing a COVID-19 rapid-testing pilot project at Toronto Pearson International Airport.
“The government of Ontario doesn’t get involved in day-to-day operations of hospitals out there.”
Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, said hospitals are independent corporations governed by their own boards of directors and “ultimately responsible for their own decisions.”
“Our position at the Ontario Hospital Association is that health care leaders should follow all public health rules, including guidance regarding non-essential travel, just as we’ve asked of every other Ontarian. Simply put, it is the right thing to do,” Mr. Dale said in a statement.
He said the OHA does not know of any other hospital CEOs or presidents who travelled outside of Canada over the holiday break.
The Globe and Mail contacted 10 hospitals with current or former CEOs who sit on the OHA’s board to ask whether their leaders left the country during the holiday break. Of the seven hospitals that responded, no leaders had travelled.
Earlier Wednesday, Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who is the MPP for Hamilton Centre, had urged the hospital board to “send a strong signal,” warning that having a senior health official ignore advice on non-essential travel undermines public confidence in COVID-19 rules.
The Ontario Nurses Association said it was “deeply disappointed” that several people in positions of authority have left the country to vacation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is disturbing to see reports of prominent politicians and at least one hospital leader opting to knowingly break the guidelines that the majority of Ontarians are following,” said ONA president Vicki McKenna.
Dr. Stewart took an “approved vacation” from Dec. 18 to Jan. 5, according to a statement from the hospital, and travelled to the Dominican Republic during that time. It said he is now self-isolating for two weeks.
“I regret this non-essential travel and I’m sorry,” Dr. Stewart said in the statement. “I recognize everyone should be avoiding non-essential travel now, including me.”
Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, called for Dr. Stewart’s resignation from both of his CEO roles.
“Stewart knows it was inappropriate for him to leave the country during the worst of this pandemic. He should also know he’s lost the trust of the people who work in his hospitals and who are receiving care in his hospitals. He must go,” Mr. Thomas said in a statement.
Michael Hurley, president of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, said a registered practical nurse at the Hamilton hospital was fired when she flew to the United States to visit her elderly parents in November.
“There’s a double standard,” he said.
Dr. Stewart has made headlines before.
In 2013, he resigned his post as top doctor at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital after an external review concluded that between 2009 and 2011, he had overseen the handing of $148,000 in consulting fees to Chris Mazza, the former head of the province’s air ambulance service known as Ornge, despite “no evidence” that all the commissioned work was done.
Meanwhile, Ornge also paid Dr. Stewart $436,728 for his advisory services between 2005 and 2012. But the air ambulance service said it was unclear whether he did the work for which he was paid.