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An Ornge helicopter of Ontario's air ambulance service is shown in a handout photo.

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Health Minister Deb Matthews is defending Ontario's troubled air ambulance service for awarding nearly $2-million in bonuses to staff after promising last year to cancel them.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath asked Tuesday why Ornge didn't stick to its guns when it said it wouldn't give performance pay to non-unionized employees.

"The fact that executives at a disgraced public company will be getting big bonuses is just another bit of bitter news for patients who want to see health care dollars spent helping people get well, not padding the pockets of already generous public salaries," Horwath said in the legislature.

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But Ornge had little choice after a group of employees launched an appeal with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and won, Matthews said.

"In order to avoid the high cost of litigation, they did decide to offer bonuses to their employees with a very clear understanding that this is one-time," she replied.

"It brings their salary up to what it was last year. It is not higher than last year's, and they have a plan going forward."

From now on, there will be "very strict guidelines" about how staff will be evaluated for performance pay, Matthews said later outside the legislative chamber.

"I would have preferred that they were able to stick with their original decision not to pay performance pay, but they lost that appeal."

Ornge chairman Ian Delaney said Ornge will give performance pay to 424 unionized and non-unionized employees this fiscal year – an average of about $4,632 each.

The bonuses won't be awarded to anyone who worked for the now bankrupt entities of Ornge, he said in a letter obtained by The Canadian Press.

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The Liberals always say they're going to crack down on bonuses and CEO salaries, but never do, Horwath said.

"People expect to actually see real change, and they're not seeing any of it," she said. "They're seeing just excuses time and time again."

Ornge, which receives about $150-million a year from the government, has been under fire for more than a year over sky-high salaries and financial irregularities that are currently under police investigation.

EHealth, the electronic health records agency that landed in hot water in 2009, also tried to cancel employee bonuses with mixed results.

EHealth employees filed a class-action lawsuit after Matthews told the agency to cancel raises of up to 1.9 per cent and promised bonuses of up to 7.8 per cent in 2011.

Former health minister David Caplan was forced to resign in 2009 after eHealth spent $1-billion trying to develop electronic health records but had very little to show for all the money.

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Millions of dollars were given to consultants with ties to the Liberal government in the form of untendered contracts, while auditors uncovered widespread abuses of expense accounts at the agency.

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