“The NDP are acting more like a failed state than a modern Canadian province by not using proper business procedures to optimize costs for our taxpayers. My understanding is that there were Manitoba companies that would have made a competitive bid.”
— Former Manitoba Liberal leader Jon Gerrard,
Winnipeg Sun, April 13, 2012
Apparently no one was listening to then-Liberal leader Jon Gerrard when he complained about the fact that Manitoba’s contract with the STARS air ambulance service was untendered.
Or no one cared to hear what the lone Liberal MLA had to say.
Nonetheless, the doctor had it right, and he was the first politician to say it.
That April, shortly after the provincial government announced a contract with the Alberta-based Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS) helicopter service to bring its services to Manitoba, Gerrard criticized the “untendered” and “unquestioned” deal.
Specifically, Gerrard suggested that the government was “wasting tens of millions of dollars” on the 10-year, $100-million contract — money that he thought could have been better spent on feeding hungry children in the province.
Two months earlier, the Manitoba Aviation Council had gotten wind that the province was attempting to negotiate a formal contract with STARS after signing a memorandum of understanding with the company the summer before.
MAC executive director Ron Coles said the news surprised the council as its members were still expecting a public tendering process, and a chance to bid on the contract. MAC president Dennis Lyons went further:
“The question is, are you just going to sole-source the contract without even putting it up for tender, without giving others a chance?” Lyons said to a Winnipeg Free Press business reporter.
To be fair, the fact that the province awarded STARS the contract without any tendering process should not have come as a surprise to the aviation council. As far back as April 2011, then-provincial health minister Theresa Oswald indicated that the province was already in talks with STARS on how the service could be made permanent in Manitoba, following the service’s successful operations in the province during the 2009 flood.
From the province’s point of view, as stated by an unnamed provincial official in a Free Press article in February 2012, the government based its decision “on the highest degree of specialized medical experience required to deliver this life-saving service,” not on aviation experience.
And STARS was considered an industry leader in air ambulance services, with a solid track record in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
But it was late August in 2012 before Manitoba’s auditor general, Carol Bellringer, decided to examine how the province awarded the STARS contract. And even then, Bellringer was rather nonchalant about the situation.
“There’s nothing that’s driving it,” Bellringer said of the planned audit. “We do like to pick a few like that, that are like a single transaction, just to see whether or not it’s been done the way it’s supposed to.”
But then, this week — and only now — it has all come crashing down on the NDP’s head.
Bellringer’s final report found that the government ignored its own rules when it signed the STARS contract, and criticized the fact that the air ambulance become a full-time service during the October 2011 election campaign.
And not only did the province not comply with public tendering principles, contract information was not initially made available to the public as set out in legislation.
Perhaps most damning — especially for a government that is under repeated fire for its fiscal mismanagement — is the fact that the province’s value-for-money analysis for STARS was weak in that costs per mission were likely to be 231 per cent to 618 per cent higher than other EMS programs. It also means that taxpayers are on the hook for $160 million, not just the original $100-million contract that was initially signed.
In short, this NDP government failed to do its due diligence. Miserably.
Although Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister eventually questioned the lack of a competitive process in December 2013, we note that Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition were relatively silent on the issue. Until now.
We don’t dispute the fact that rural Manitoba benefits greatly from having an air ambulance service. But the contract process was flawed from the start, and obviously so at least as far back as early 2012.
So why was there only one lone voice in the political wilderness sounding the alarm? Where was the choir?
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 21, 2014