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Company Caught in Ontario Scandal Also Had BC Contracts

Health consultant helped former BC civil servant Penny Ballem find work in Ontario.

By Andrew MacLeod 10 Jun 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Former B.C. deputy minister of health Penny Ballem.

A former senior British Columbia government official got a lucrative contract in Ontario through a company that has worked for the B.C. government.

Former B.C. deputy minister of health, Penny Ballem, now Vancouver's city manager, was paid $30,000 for 78 hours of work, or $385 per hour, on an Ontario government project during a three month period in 2008, according to the June 9 Globe and Mail.

"Dr. Ballem got the consulting assignment through Michael Guerriere, a managing partner at Courtyard Group, which itself has lucrative contracts with [Ontario] eHealth," the Globe's report said. Ballem was paid despite an eHealth employee's concern she did not have a signed contract, the story said. "The eHealth employee was told to process the payment to Dr. Ballem because Dr. Guerriere could validate her invoice, the documents show."

Guerriere's Courtyard Group has also said the company worked for B.C. Records, and government spokespeople confirm the province has paid the company at least $700,000 since 2003, most of it through one of the health authorities, the arm's-length government bodies that deliver healthcare in the province.

Ballem was B.C.'s deputy minister of health until June 2006, when she resigned citing disagreements with Gordon Campbell's government on the future of health care in the province.

'Not to my knowledge': Ballem

Ballem said in a phone interview she believes she never hired Courtyard when she worked for the province. "Let's say this: not to my knowledge. I never contracted with Courtyard... They could have done some work since I left the government."

In 2006, Courtyard was just getting established in the province, she said. "I never met Courtyard until I went and did some work for them in Ontario."

Ballem said she met Guerriere in 2002 when he gave the province strategic advice on setting up the current system of six health authorities. It was one day of work for Guerriere, she said, adding that he may well have been paid for that.

She and Guerriere also knew each other through their work with Canada Health Infoway, she said. Guerriere was on the board of directors and she was a member, a position that came with being B.C.'s deputy minister of health.

As deputy minister, Ballem earned $230,000 in salary and other compensation, plus $75,000 for travel expenses, in fiscal 2005-2006, her last full year in the position.

VIHA contracts 'above board'

Courtyard Group has done little work directly for the B.C. Health Ministry. The name does not appear in lists of payments in the province's public accounts going back to 2001.

A B.C. Health Ministry search of records turned up just one Courtyard Group contract, said ministry spokesperson Ryan Jabs in an e-mail. In 2006, the company won a $24,020 contract to provide "risk assurance review(s) of eHealth projects between 2006 and 2008." Under the contract, Courtyard performed a risk review for the ministry on the CareConnect Project run by the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.

"The average hourly rate paid to the consultants was approximately $175 per hour and was comparable to current rates paid to contractors at that time," said Jabs.

Courtyard might have subcontracts the ministry is unaware of, he said.

Financial records for the Vancouver Island Health Authority, however, show the agency paid companies listed as Courtyard Group and Courtyard Group Ltd. a total of $663,154 between 2003 and 2008. A VIHA spokesperson, Suzanne Germain, said the agency paid Courtyard another $36,928 in fiscal 2008-2009, a year for which financial statements have not yet been released.

Courtyard provided consulting and professional services for developing VIHA's electronic health records systems, Germain said. VIHA awarded the work through an "above board" process that followed the government's normal procedure of seeking competitive bids for any contract over $25,000, she said.

The VIHA official best to speak about the contracts is the chief information officer, Catherine Claiter, Germain said. Claiter did not call by publishing time.

As it happens, Claiter's biography on the VIHA website notes that she was previously a "senior manager with the Courtyard Group, a professional services firm dedicated to healthcare." She joined VIHA in 2005.

Ballem helped set strategy

Calls to Courtyard's offices in Toronto and Vancouver were not returned by posting time.

Courtyard opened the Vancouver office in September 2006, according to a company press release, which notes they already had staff working in Victoria at that time.

The release quoted then new chief financial officer Caroline Dunn saying, "With Courtyard's commitment to transforming healthcare locally in the B.C. market and their commitment to employee satisfaction, I am able to fulfill my global responsibilities and not leave my beloved province."

It also noted, "Courtyard Group looks forward to expanding its working relationships with B.C.'s health care sector."

Courtyard opened the Vancouver office at a time when B.C. was beginning to steer millions of dollars into getting the province's medical records computerized, a project in which Ballem, as deputy minister, was heavily involved.

A message from Ballem leads the November 2005 eHealth Strategic Framework. "eHealth represents a major step in transforming the health care system into a robust and streamlined continuum of care, supported by a seamless web of health information," she wrote. "We must pursue the eHealth goal with full commitment and an utmost sense of urgency, and rebalance other priorities where necessary."

The project, part of a nationwide push to keep electronic health records, is no doubt expensive. In 2007, the Health Ministry awarded a $148-million, 10-year contract to Sun Microsystems to begin building the infrastructure needed to keep electronic health records. The Health Ministry will spend $31.4 million on eHealth related projects in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, according to a ministry spokesperson.

eHealth RCMP investigation

B.C.'s eHealth project has previously been the source of some controversy and led to an ongoing RCMP investigation.

In 2007, the government suspended Ron Danderfer, who was then an assistant deputy health minister and who chaired the eHealth Steering Committee.

The eHealth Strategic Framework, by the way, includes a message from Danderfer: "Our mandate has an aggressive timeline and funds are limited... Therefore, we must mobilize all possible resources in the most effective way."

An audit found a contractor had allegedly written a $10,000 cheque to Danderfer's wife, also a civil servant. Both have since retired, but the investigation continues.

Special prosecutor and Victoria lawyer John Waddell said he expects the RCMP's commercial crimes division will complete the investigation within the next couple of months. It will then be up to him to decide what, if any, charges to lay.

The Victoria Times Colonist reported last week that Waddell had said the investigation has widened.

Waddell said June 9 that he could not say whether or not any officials have been added to the investigation. Neither could John Taylor, the RCMP's lead investigator on the file.

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