Marine medical call revelations cause political waves

Records that show the Canadian military pressured coast guard officials into using doctors in Italy for marine medical calls off Newfoundland this spring have churned up some rough political waters for the Conservative government.

Questions raised in House of Commons, N.L. legislature in wake of CBC story

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, the Liberals and NDP questioned why marine medical calls from Newfoundland were routed to Italy this spring. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Records that show the Canadian military pressured coast guard officials into using doctors in Italy for marine medical calls off Newfoundland this spring have churned up some rough political waters for the federal Conservative government.

In May, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons that "there is no change to procedure here."

But that answer conflicts with internal correspondence between DND and the coast guard obtained by CBC News under federal access to information laws.

Before the rescue sub-centre in St. John’s was shuttered in April, at-sea medical calls off Newfoundland were funnelled to doctors in Halifax, working for a company called Praxes.

Coast guard management in Newfoundland extended that contract for a few months to cover the transitional period after the sub-centre’s closure.

But Halifax-based military officials criticized that decision, insisting on one medical calls procedure for the entire Atlantic region. They pressured the coast guard in Newfoundland into abandoning that contract extension with the Canadian firm.

Those calls would instead go to the Queen Elizabeth II hospital in Halifax, which had an informal arrangement to handle the much lower number of calls from the rest of the Atlantic region.

But federal documents reveal that no one told the QE2 they could now expect to receive an additional 100 calls a year from Newfoundland.

Doctors there balked, leaving a free service in Italy — CIRM Roma, which is mostly used by ships from developing nations —  as the final option for mariners seeking medical advice.

Opposition questions in Parliament

The opposition parties jumped all over the issue in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

The Conservative government "has raised misleading Canadians to an art form," NDP defence critic Jack Harris charged.

NDP MP Jack Harris says the Conservative government "has raised misleading Canadians to an art form." (CBC)

"The prime minister told the House last spring that the Italian service was a backup, but the new trail of emails contradicts this story," the St. John’s East MP said.

"The defence department was actually pushing for the plan to move medical emergency calls to Rome when Halifax said it would not take marine emergency calls. Will the minister of national defence now explain these contradictions and come clean on his role and his department's reckless decision?"

Defence Minister Peter MacKay did not field the question. The acting fisheries minister, Gail Shea, did.

Shea stressed that the coast guard has "an excellent working relationship" with the defence department.

"I can assure the member that it is a Canadian company that is taking those medical calls," Shea said.

Newfoundland Liberal MP Judy Foote charged that Harper "misled the House" on the issue in May.

"Internal emails revealed that the procedure was in fact permanently changed and that medical calls were to be answered first in Rome, not Canada," Foote said.

"Why did the prime minister put seafarers' lives at risk and try to cover it up?"

Shea deflected those charges as well.

"I certainly reject the premise of that question," Shea replied.

"I can assure the honourable member that marine medical calls are being answered in Canada by Canadians."

Political ripples also hit Newfoundland

The political ripples hit shore all the way back in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"The CBC report on marine medical calls being routed to Rome is distressing and shows a total lack of respect for those who make their living from the sea," Liberal MHA Yvonne Jones said during question period at the provincial legislature on Tuesday.

Liberal MP Judy Foote is accusing the Conservative government of a cover-up on the marine medical calls issue. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"I ask the premier today: What assurances do you have since the closure of the Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre that the safety of the fisherpeople of this province is secure?"

Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O’Brien replied. He took credit for Ottawa’s decision to sign an emergency contract with Halifax-based Praxes as CBC reports were about to break on the Italian calls this spring.

"As a matter of fact, the question actually highlights the fast action of this government and our interaction with the federal counterparts in regard to the rerouting of calls to Rome," O’Brien said.

But in May, Premier Kathy Dunderdale acknowledged she was actually unaware of the issue until the day CBC broke the news.

"I was not called directly on this matter," Dunderdale told the house of assembly at the time.

"I was surprised and I was extremely concerned."

Ottawa’s signed an "emergency contract" for marine medical calls with the Canadian service provider just as CBC reports on the Italian solution were airing in May.

That emergency contract extended service to the entire Atlantic region, not just Newfoundland.