Refocusing Ornge and improving medical transport in Ontario

Fifty-five – that is the number of patients Ornge transported on July 23rd. Six hundred and seventy-six is the longest trip flown in statute miles on that same day and 20,765 is the total number of miles flown that day. What these numbers tell us is that in a province the size of Ontario, we need Ornge. It saves lives.

No other health care organization has received the amount of media attention that Ornge has over the last eight months. And the news hasn’t been feel-good stories of lives being saved. Since Kevin Donovan from the Toronto Star broke the first story in December about Ornge’s failure to disclose executive salaries, we have been bombarded with stories of what boils down to an epic failure on behalf of the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care to ensure taxpayer dollars are being put to good use.

From exorbitant salaries and nepotism, to using taxpayer dollars to fund private for-profit companies, to the more serious claims that the transport medicine company failed to provide the high quality care Ontarians deserve, we have heard it all.

Not since the ehealth scandal have Ontarians been so captivated by what has clearly been a gross mismanagement of their taxpayer dollars. Now as it plays out in hearings at Queens Park and the OPP continue with their criminal investigation, Ontarians are left wondering what now?

To the Ministry of Health’s credit, once the story broke, action was swift and decisive. The executive team was dismantled and a new interim CEO, Ron McKerlie was appointed. Not an easy position to step into. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ron, and was struck by the pride in his descriptions of the people who work at Ornge. “For me, coming into this organization, the biggest surprise was the dedication and passion of the people I work with. These are 500 people who deal with the sickest of the sick and are reading all of these negative things about the organization they work for and still coming to work everyday,” he explains.

And really, while this drama played out in the media, most people probably didn’t stop to think about those who work on the front-lines, taking care of the patients. These highly trained people who deal with tragedy and extremely sick people everyday, do so because they want to help. They want to save lives. I am sure they are very proud of what they do. Most of them have probably played an integral role in saving many lives. And in one fell swoop – it’s wiped away. The pride they take in their job squashed because of mismanagement and a lack of transparency they had nothing to do with.

“The front-line staff come to work everyday because they want to make a difference and don’t expect the shrapnel from the public and media taking shots so unfortunately, they have suffered. That is not what they signed up for,” says Ron. It’s unfortunate that these people are collateral damage.

Without question, mistakes – huge mistakes –  have been made. Ontarians have suffered and taxpayer money has been wasted. We can only hope that the people responsible will be held accountable and that a very difficult lesson has been learned.

As Ron addresses in this month’s cover story, Ornge and its new volunteer board of directors are working hard to restore our confidence in their organization. And they have their work cut out for them.

I have never been a fan of the blame game – I find it counter-productive, especially when it comes to an essential service.  To me, two things are clear:  first is that, as taxpayers we need to demand more from our government who is supposed to be overseeing publicly funded organizations; and second, we need to focus on moving forward and making our medical transport system the best it can be.

In spite of all the negative that has come out about Ornge, it’s important to remember that this service saves lives everyday. Over 18,000 patients are transported every year. Does every patient who needs an air ambulance receive one? Unfortunately, no. That is a sad reality in our health system. Demand outweighs supply. Do Ontarians deserve better? Of course we do. And hopefully we start demanding it of our government.

I live very close to a hospital. I can see the helipad at the end of my street. When I hear an Ornge helicopter I grab my daughter and we run to the end of the street to watch it land. When my daughter asks who is that mommy? I tell her they are heroes. What’s happened doesn’t change that.

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