ORNGE sets up policy to protect whistleblowers in wake of scandal

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Kevin Donovan – December 27, 2012

ORNGE employees who want to blow the whistle on poor company practices can do so without fear of discipline or being fired, the air ambulance firm announced Thursday. In setting up its new “whistleblower policy,” ORNGE hopes to avoid the problems that the former management’s secrecy allowed to fester.

“We are truly committed to continuous improvement at ORNGE, and that means everyone should feel free to come forward with concerns, without fear of reprisal,” said Ron McKerlie, interim president and CEO of ORNGE. “Our new whistleblower policy will promote integrity throughout the organization.”

The move comes in reaction to revelations in the Star over the past year. Amid the growing scandal of high salaries, patient care issues and international spending sprees, the Star revealed that insiders raised alarms for several years and were turned away — in at least one case the employee lost his job after speaking up.

Keith Walmsley, who held a finance role at ORNGE, raised serious concerns in 2007 to his superior at ORNGE, first, and then to the Ministry of Health in 2008 after ORNGE dumped him.

Reached Thursday, Walmsley, who was hailed for his bravery by opposition critics, said he is pleased that action has been taken. Many of the issues he raised back then were the same as the issues that, when finally brought to public attention, led to the dismantling and re-creation of the corporate team of Ontario’s $150-million-a-year air ambulance service.

“I would have loved to have one in place back in 2007. It is right for the employee, the public, the stewardship of an organization,” said Walmsley, who now works at a GTA hospital.

“Management cannot be everywhere and it is in everyone’s best interest to do the right thing and to ensure there are no secrets.”

When Walmsley first brought his concerns to ORNGE in 2007 a senior executive told him “what the Ministry (of Health) doesn’t know won’t hurt them.” After he was let go and had a new job, Walmsley complained to the provincial finance ministry. Their investigation consisted of calling ORNGE and asking whether everything was OK, the Star reported earlier. When ORNGE said it was, the province dropped the investigation and told Walmsley all of the issues he raised had been settled.

ORNGE’s new policy is one of a flurry of announcements the air ambulance service has pumped out leading up to and during the holiday season as it tries to put what one insider called “an absolutely awful year” behind it. A new conflict-of-information policy was announced; a new chief operating officer appointed and most recently, Ontario’s chief coroner, Dr. Andrew McCallum has been announced as the new president and CEO effective Jan. 21. The longtime CEO and founder of ORNGE, Dr. Chris Mazza, left his post a year ago on medical leave and lost his job when the private ORNGE company that employed him was declared bankrupt.

When Mazza testified at a Queen’s Park committee hearing earlier this year he said both he and the former board chairman had an “open-door policy” and he was surprised that people felt he and his managers were secretive.

“I’ve also heard said that there was a culture of fear,” Mazza testified. “I don’t have any explanation for that.”

ORNGE officials say whistleblowers will now have a confidential line to a firm the service has hired — Grant Thornton LLP. The accounting, business advisory and risk management firm will receive employee disclosures in a “safe and confidential manner” and will assess each one and determine whether further steps are needed.

“(Grant Thornton) has full discretion to conduct investigations and make recommendations, and will ensure the complainant is protected from reprisal,” ORNGE said in an announcement, which refers to Grant Thornton as ORNGE’s “Independent Ethics Officer.”

Former ORNGE executive Jacob Blum also had serious concerns about ORNGE that were ignored. In an interview Thursday, Blum said he was delighted that the air ambulance service had taken this move. “If ORNGE wants to restore itself, regain the public’s confidence and get back on the right track, a whistleblower policy is essential.”

Blum congratulated the new ORNGE board of directors (the old one resigned a year ago) for implementing the policy. “It is a great indication that there is a commitment to quality patient care and safety.”

Many of ORNGE’s revelations were initially dug out by front-line staff — paramedics and pilots — who were frustrated at the secret corporate culture. For example, paramedics had to deal with helicopters so jammed with what they determined was poorly designed medical interiors that they could not perform CPR midflight. When they raised issues they were ignored and eventually resorted to providing confidential information to the Star and opposition critics.

Meanwhile, the OPP has been investigating allegations of wrongdoing for 10 months. The police force has not said when it expects its work to be concluded. A provincial coroner’s investigation into deaths during air ambulance transfers is also continuing and the legislative committee probing ORNGE is hoping to get back to work in the New Year.

Orginal article on Toronto Star website