Ornge helicopters out of London can't fly to U.S.
London Community News
By Tanya Talaga and Kevin Donovan/Torstar News Service
ORNGE helicopters are forbidden from entering U.S. airspace and must land at the border and use land ambulances to cross to American cities.
A leaked government memo, initially obtained by the Progressive Conservatives, shows ORNGE is awaiting FAA approval.
The letter, dated Monday, says there is a delay in receiving necessary U.S. Federal Aviation Administration approval for ORNGE chopper flights across the border. Ontario funds the scandal-plagued ORNGE $150 million a year to provide air ambulance service.
“ORNGE helicopters based out of Toronto, London, Ottawa and Sudbury are not able to fly into the U.S. at this time,” according to a statement released by ORNGE.
A spokesperson for Health Minister Deb Matthews said the issue relates to ORNGE’s new AgustaWestland helicopters, and not its older fleet of Sikorsky helicopters, which have approval for cross-border flights.
Only one patient in the last fiscal year has had to be transported by helicopter in the U.S., said ORNGE spokeswoman Jennifer Tracey.
However, 28 people have been taken across the border by fixed-wing aircraft, she said. These patients are normally in need of a burn unit or neurology bed and must be flown to the U.S. for care as there is no space in an Ontario hospital.
While they wait, there is a contingency plan in place, said Tracey. Patients requiring American transport are taken to the nearest helipad on the Canadian side and transferred to hospital via a U.S.-based land ambulance. A memo was sent by ORNGE to its employees detailing the protocol.
PC MPP Elizabeth Witmer chastised Matthews in the Legislature on Tuesday for not knowing about the cross-border patient transfer problem.
Matthews answered Witmer by saying the front-line staff at the provincial air ambulance service are fully behind the new leadership changes at ORNGE.
ORNGE founder Dr. Chris Mazza, who earned a salary of $1.4 million, was terminated without severance when the government shut down a series of non-profit companies he had created. Ron McKerlie, a former deputy minister of government services, has taken over as interim CEO of ORNGE, which has been returned to its non-profit status.
Witmer called Matthew’s “lack of response” to her question “unbelievable.”
“You don’t even have the information in your head that’s in your briefing notes,” Witmer said. “It now is up to staff at the ministry to continue to provide information about what is going on at the air ambulance service.”
Both the PCs and the New Democrats are demanding Matthews resign over the scandal, which has been detailed in a series of Star stories for months and include allegations of executive perks, questionable loans and service disruptions that have seen helicopters sit idle for days due to lack of staff.
ORNGE is now the focus of a criminal probe by the Ontario Provincial Police.
Matthews told reporters after question period that when patients are transferred to the U.S. they usually fly on fixed-wing airplanes and those are approved. “Patient safety is not being impacted by this,” she said.
Matthews admitted to reporters she didn’t know about this problem when it was brought up by Witmer.
“You are right, I didn’t know that when I was asked in the House. These are complex organizations, ORNGE is one of hundreds of organizations I have responsibility for,” she said.
Matthews does not believe she should fire the deputy minister of health Saad Rafi for failing to inform her of all the transgressions at ORNGE. “Absolutely not,” she told reporters. “What is important is we are taking the right steps. It is very important to have strong leadership in place.”
However, the Star revealed on Monday that Rick Potter, ORNGE’s aviation chief, pretended to have an MBA from Scotland in order to woo investors into kicking in $275 million for new aircraft.
“I was appalled by Potter’s fake MBA. You know that is just another example of the former leadership of being too lose with the truth,” she said.
Potter is still employed by ORNGE, said Tracey.
A ministry of health official said they are working with Transport Canada, the FAA and others to expedite the approval.
This article was originally published in the Toronto Star (www.thestar.com), which is credited for breaking the original story on the mismanagement of Ornge while continuing to provide comprehensive reporting on the ongoing issues.