Ornge should have tested choppers longer, CEO says

The head of Ornge says it is too early to say if faulty helicopter design led to the deaths of several patients in northern Ontario.

Interim CEO Ron McKerlie says it's too early to say Ornge helicopter interiors contributed to patient deaths

The head of Ornge says it is too early to say if faulty helicopter design led to the deaths of several patients in northern Ontario.

Opposition MPPs have slammed the provincial air ambulance service this week for putting the public at risk.

But the interim CEO at Ornge said he wants to see what investigators uncover before passing judgment.

Ron McKerlie took over after the ambulance service's well-publicized financial scandal.

He said the interior of the helicopters was renovated four months ago — but noted that doesn't mean Ornge is admitting fault in the deaths.

"The investigations will find out whether patients were indeed at risk because of this," McKerlie said. "But it certainly wasn't an ideal situation."

Each individual death will be investigated, but the opposition parties say they want a full coroner's inquest to look at how safe patients were inside the Ornge helicopters.

The aircraft design reportedly kept paramedics from treating patients when it was landing or taking off.

Faulty design?

Nipissing Progressive Conservative Vic Fedeli said that cost at least three people their lives.

Vic Fedeli, Conservative MPP for Nipissing. (CBC)

"Minister, northerners are dying due to this scandalous helicopter purchase," Fedeli said to Minister of Health Deb Matthews in the provincial legislature this week. "And this happening on your watch."

McKerlie said Ornge should have done more testing on the choppers before putting them into service in 2010, but those design flaws have since been fixed.

Fedeli said, according to some leaked cabinet documents, patients in Capreol, Temiskaming and Parry Sound died due to the aircraft’s faulty design.

"The paramedics themselves are making the connection," Fedeli said. "I don’t know how much clearer the testimony from these paramedics needs to be to the minister to admit that 'yes, there is a direct correlation of the purchase of that helicopter and that interior and those deaths."

McKerlie said the scrutiny over this and the provincial agency's financial scandal has been hard on employees.

"It's a challenging environment when you're in the news every day and being criticized for things … many of which are frankly taken out of context or things you may not have control over," McKerlie said.

Ornge, which is under a criminal probe, has been rocked for months by allegations about questionable business deals, high executive salaries and whether public money was used for personal gain.

Ontario's auditor general has criticized the government for failing to oversee Ornge, despite giving it $730 million over five years and allowing it to borrow another $300 million.

A legislative committee is also holding hearings on Ornge and has called in many former executives and bureaucrats to testify.

With files from Canadian Press