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Health Minister tries to explain delay on Ornge

Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews answers question following the Auditor General's special report on Ornge air ambulance operations Mar. 21, 2012 at Queen's Park.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

For Ontario's embattled Health Minister, it has come down to a question of when and what she knew about problems at the province's air-ambulance service.

Deb Matthews was on the defensive on Thursday, attempting to explain a three-month gap between the time her ministry officials received a draft audit raising red flags at Ornge and when she acted on that report.

Ms. Matthews said in Question Period that she was briefed on the provincial auditor's draft report last October – two months earlier than she had previously indicated. She reiterated that ministry officials received the draft audit in September. But she said they received it during the provincial election campaign, when she was seeking re-election, not performing her duties as Health Minister.

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"We were on the campaign trail," Ms. Matthews said. "The ministry was operating in a caretaker role. It would have been completely inappropriate for the ministry to share that report with a person who was a candidate in the election."

Ms. Matthews said she was briefed about the problems at Ornge shortly after she was sworn in as Health Minister last Oct. 20, the day Premier Dalton McGuinty unveiled his new cabinet. But she did not meet with Auditor-General Jim McCarter until December, the same month media reports appeared about lavish compensation at Ornge.

The final version of the audit report, released on Wednesday, assailed the Health Ministry for failing to oversee Ornge, which created a "mini-conglomerate" of private entities that enriched former senior officers and left taxpayers on the hook for debts totalling $300-million, Mr. McCarter said.

Opposition members did not accept Ms. Matthews' explanation for why she could not get involved during the election campaign, noting that she made health-related announcements while on the hustings.

"It's beginning to look more and more like a cover-up," Progressive Conservative MPP Elizabeth Witmer said in Question Period.

"Why does she think she should keep her job?" asked New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath.

Premier Dalton McGuinty was not in Question Period to defend his minister, who spent virtually the entire hour on her feet, fielding calls for her resignation from no fewer than eight Opposition members.

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Her only reprieve came when the Speaker took the extraordinary step of calling a 10-minute recess, after Opposition members banged on their desks and shouted "resign" in unison.

Ms. Matthews told reporters after Question Period that she took action as soon as she found out from Mr. McCarter that officials at Ornge were stonewalling him. She met with Ornge officials that same month. In January, she brought in a team of forensic auditors to untangle a web of private, for-profit companies and appointed an interim chief executive officer.

In February, the entire board of directors resigned and the Ontario Provincial Police launched a criminal investigation.

"Once I got involved," Ms. Matthews told reporters, "that is when the house of cards started to fall around Ornge."

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About the Author

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

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