eHealth bureaucrats won't get pay hikes
TORONTO - Hundreds of eHealth Ontario bureaucrats will no longer receive bonuses and merit pay this year after the agency came under fire for planned increases at a time when the government promised a two-year wage freeze for public sector workers.
eHealth CEO Greg Reed said the bonuses were meant to reward the progress made in turning around the scandal-plagued agency, which was criticized in 2009 for spending $1 billion trying to develop electronic health records with little to show for it.
But when "placed in the context of the hard work eHealth Ontario still has to do in overcoming past challenges, and in light of the pressing financial circumstances that all Ontarians face, it is clear that this decision needs to be revisited," he said on Friday.
Employees will no longer receive merit increases and performance-linked incentives, said Reed, who also turned down his own bonus.
"There's been a real culture shift at eHealth Ontario under the new leadership and I think this decision demonstrates that new culture," said Health Minister Deb Matthews, who earlier this week was rebuked for failing to stop a promised 1.9 per cent merit raise and bonuses of 7.8 per cent.
Matthews said Wednesday she was disappointed to hear about the raises and asked Reed to take a closer look at the plan. But because the wage restraint rules have no force in law, the health minister didn't order eHealth to rescind the merit pay and bonuses, since they are allowed under the rules.
Matthews would not say Friday whether there were similar increases at other agencies that should be revisited, but hinted they may want to follow eHealth's lead.
"This decision is one that other agencies are probably paying close attention to, and I want to applaud eHealth for coming to this decision," Matthews said in an interview.
Opposition parties had demanded the Liberal government put a stop to the hikes, saying it was unfair to freeze pay for front-line health-care workers like nurses while giving eHealth bureaucrats raises.
New Democrat Peter Kormos said Premier Dalton McGuinty should have made sure the hikes weren't promised in the first place, instead of taking them away "after he was caught lying to the people of Ontario."
"One can imagine the incredible diminishment of morale among eHealth staff, because notwithstanding that they have considerable salaries, this is still a horrible thing to do to them," Kormos said.
"But the fact that McGuinty authorized these bonuses in the first place should be shocking to most Ontarians."
Other agencies should also be scrutinized, Kormos added.
"You can bet your boots that there's going to be surprises emerging from any number of sectors in the broader public sector," he said.
Progressive Conservative Lisa MacLeod called the raises "insulting" for hard-working families, also suggesting the governing Liberals had moved to put a stop to the hikes only because they got caught.
"It doesn't surprise me given that Dalton McGuinty has backtracked on a number of his commitments for public sector wage freeze," said MacLeod.
The Liberals' wage freeze, proposed in last year's budget, didn't include enabling legislation, and as a result, the government has had trouble keeping increases in check. Arbitrators have mostly ignored the freeze and kept awarding pay hikes, while several police forces and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union have also been given hikes by the province.
eHealth has been causing the Liberals headaches since David Caplan was forced to resign as health minister in 2009, when it was discovered that millions of dollars given to consultants with ties to the Liberal government in the form of untendered contracts. There had also been abuses of expense accounts at the agency.
Last month, the government was put on the defensive once again for burying former deputy health minister Ron Sapsford's $762,000 salary in a Hamilton hospital's budget.
Sapsford received the payment last year, while former eHealth boss Sarah Kramer, who was fired in 2009, also made the 2010 sunshine list at $107,000.