Misspending allegations at B.C.'s PHSA include 'excessive catering,' 'problematic' PPE: health minister
VANCOUVER -- Addressing what he called "concerns of misspending" at the Provincial Health Services Authority, B.C.'s health minister said his deputy minister has been asked to conduct a review.
In a statement Friday, Minister Adrian Dix said he asked Stephen Brown to look into allegations raised earlier this week, including that the PHSA "undertook unnecessary, unbudgeted renovations" at its Vancouver headquarters.
Additionally, the minister said, it is alleged the PHSA made "inappropriate" hiring and appointment decisions, as well as decisions on severance and salaries.
Dix also listed claims of "excessive catering expenses" for executives in the spring, while the province was still reeling from the first wave of the novel coronavirus, and of "the procurement of problematic respirators."
Brown was asked, according to the minister, to assess the decisions and conduct of the PHSA and advise the ministry on whether any actions are required, including changes to policies.
And on Thursday, Dix said, Brown reported back.
It appears the deputy minister found some issues with the personal protective equipment.
According to Dix, Brown has recommended a third-party investigation that will clarify "the appropriateness of the PHSA's handling of a problematic purchase of (PPE) and other related concerns."
Additionally, the deputy minister recommended limiting the PHSA's authority on spending internal capital without approval, as well as an overall review and "refresh" of related policies.
‘Throw it under the rug’ before the weekend?
The opposition Liberals were quick to criticize Dix for being light on details when there’s enough substance to the allegations, first brought to light in a CBC report, to already result in consequences and a probe.
"Clearly something has gone awry," said health critic Renee Merrifield. "But instead of getting answers, we don’t get transparency, we don’t get that accountability and only through transparency are we going to get the answers that B.C. needs – instead we’re getting a press release and a ‘throw it under the rug’ on a Friday night."
She says she’s tried digging into the details and available documentation but has been blocked by the ministry.
"What happened here?" asked Merrified. "Why did we take $7 million and waste it with faulty masks? Why were we doing renovations on renovations in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and why were we catering meals for executives that went not just for one nice meal -- we're talking for months, they were catering meals. So we need answers and we need answers now."
The Liberals said it would be unacceptable to wait months for results when there’s so much that can be answered immediately.
CEO hired and fired during pandemic
Of particular focus in the investigation will be the man at the helm of the government agency, which describes its mandate as "a unique role in B.C.'s health authority system: to ensure that B.C. residents have access to a co-ordinated provincial network of high-quality specialized health-care services."
On Jan. 7, PHSA announced Benoit Morin would be the organization's new president and CEO as of Feb. 3, and his biography on the PHSA website describes him as having more than two decades of experience in health care, research and academia; he most recently worked in the Montreal West Island healthcare system.
Not only has he raised questions about who was hired and fired from the executive team under Morin’s leadership, including the chief internal auditor, but Dix has directed a third-party advisor to "fully (clarify) the PHSA CEO's role in all aspects of the transaction with Luminarie, a health-care product distribution company" where the millions in "problematic personal protective equipment" was purchased.
Luminarie is a Montreal-based company that describes its mission as: "Introduce innovative health care solutions to the Canadian market that meet the important needs of health professionals and consumers."
At the time of Morin’s appointment, Dix was quoted as extending "a warm welcome" to Morin and the news release about his appointment notes he has an executive MBA from Queen’s University, a CPA designation, and "a Ph.D. in health ethics and law from the University of Toronto."
Benoit Morin is shown in an undated photo from the PHSA's website.
Recommendations and restrictions for now
Brown also recommended limiting the PHSA's power to change senior executives without his approval, and to review business meeting expenses following the catering allegations.
Dix said he "reviewed and accepted" all of the recommendations made by Brown.
While policy reviews and the third-party investigation are taking place, interim measures include that the PHSA have no further planning or spending of internal capital unless approved by the ministry.
The PHSA has been told to eliminate the chief of staff role as of next Friday, and make no further decisions on hiring or firing senior executives without approval.
"I have made it clear that it is critical that the public has confidence in the PHSA and the management of B.C.'s health system in general," Dix said in a written statement.
In a brief response, PHSA leadership wrote that they are supportive of the review, and welcome new recommendations "as an opportunity to ensure public confidence."
The authority refused to comment on the PPE claim "to protect the integrity" of the investigation.
It thanked staff, including medical staff and paramedics, for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic.