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A recorded announcement on the B.C. Medical Services Plan and PharmaCare phone line says the call is "very important" to them.

But it took 39 minutes on hold yesterday before the bland music stopped and the next available agent responded.

A day after the controversial resignation of Richard Mason, president of Maximus B.C. Health, the recently privatized health-care answering service continued to fall far short of its three-minute target for responding to calls. The company has been fined three times since April for failing to meet targets for answering calls and processing documents.

Despite the problems, the province has no regrets about privatizing the service and signing a 10-year contract worth $324-million with Maximus, Health Minister George Abbott said yesterday.

"I have no misgivings about that at all," he said. Problems with the Medical Services Plan information line were much more severe when it was run by government, he added.

"One of the benefits of doing this by contract is we can drive better performance through the use of penalties where appropriate. What we are seeing, after probably 25 years of frustration with this information line, is some progress."

Mr. Abbott also said he was not particularly concerned about Mr. Mason's resignation. "Our contract is with Maximus, the corporate organization. . . . How they organize and restructure their executive is their issue."

The Health Minister dismissed the lengthy delays in responding to calls as "growing pains." However, he said he will look more closely into the delays if the company's performance has not improved by the end of the year.

Maximus B.C. Health, a subsidiary of Virginia-based Maximus Inc., took over management of the health-care programs on April 1.

The company is responsible for responding to public inquiries, registering new clients and processing medical and pharmaceutical claims, but is not involved with direct health services to patients.

Mr. Mason resigned nine months after his appointment as president, without commenting on his reasons for quitting. Brian Pollick, chairman of the company's board of directors, said yesterday it was Mr. Mason's decision to leave.

"The sense that Mr. Mason was pushed is not accurate," said Mr. Pollick, who succeeded Mr. Mason as president. "We did not ask him to leave. He felt it was in the best interests of the company and himself to do so."

Mr. Pollick also said the company expects to meet its targets by the end of September. Additional staff members have been hired and performance has improved in August, he said.

However, New Democratic Party MLA Rob Fleming (Victoria-Hillside) said the party intends to ask the provincial Auditor-General this fall to review the company's performance.

"This is pretty serious; one of the most senior executives resigns after a summer full of fines being imposed and missed deadlines," said Mr. Fleming, who has been designated chairman of the B.C. Legislature's public-accounts committee.

"It paints a very chaotic picture. . . . It's in the public interest to have answers about why, right out of the gate, this contract went so off the rails," he said. "It's an issue of confidence now, if the company can fulfill its contract, or the government should be looking at options beyond penalties."

Mary Rowles, a spokesperson for the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, said the privatization of services did not affect unionized government employees, who were offered jobs at Maximus at the same pay, under the same working conditions. "Our contract continues. . . . Labour relations in the offices is not a problem," she said.

However the union believes taxpayers "have been sold a bill of goods." The company has repeated failed to meet its targets, she said. "The question is, at what point does the government decide it is not growing pains and acknowledges there is institutional instability there?

"What's the drop-dead date, when they acknowledge that it has gone past costing-saving and they need to take the service back into government?"

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