British Columbia

Adrian Dix says PHSA must 'do better' after whistleblowers allege misspending

A review of spending at the Public Health Services Authority of B.C. has made several recommendations, including that an independent advisor look into a “problematic purchase” of personal protective equipment among other concerns.

Review comes after CBC News brought forward concerns from multiple whistleblowers

A photo distributed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control shows an example of a counterfeit mask that was sold around the world. Similar masks were purchased by the PHSA. (Centers for Disease Control)

Health Minister Adrian Dix said he expects the Provincial Health Services Authority and its president and CEO "to do better" following allegations of misspending.

"We're not happy," Dix said in a phone interview. "It's [president and CEO Benoit Morin's] job and PHSA's job to do better and to follow the recommendations. And I expect that they will."

A review of spending at the PHSA has made several recommendations, including an independent adviser to look into a "problematic purchase" of personal protective equipment.

Dix ordered an immediate review of alleged misspending by the authority after CBC News brought forward concerns raised by multiple sources.

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix said it was critical PHSA maintain public confidence after whistleblowers spoke out about some financial decisions at the authority. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The whistleblowers accused the authority of squandering $7 million on the purchase of unusable face masks from China, hundreds of thousands of dollars on unnecessary renovations to executive offices and tens of thousands of dollars on high-end catered meals for executives and their staff.

"We needed ... to clear these issues up so the PHSA can make improvements and then move on from this," Dix said.

"It's critical that an agency this important have public credibility."

Dix said in the statement he had accepted recommendations from the deputy minister of health, including:

  • Limits on PHSA internal capital spending, absent the deputy minister's approval.
  • A "review and refresh" of policies covering internal capital planning to be completed by the Ministry of Health.
  • Limits on senior executive changes by the authority without the deputy minister's approval.
  • A review of business meeting expense policies of the authority and each regional health authority.

Dix also said a third-party adviser would be hired to probe concerns about how the authority handled the "problematic purchase" of personal protective equipment "to help restore public confidence in the PHSA and its leadership."

"We're in a legal process now to seek legal remedies for that purchase," Dix said Friday. "We'll see how that goes."

Friday's recommendations also called on the authority to clarify by January Morin's role in all aspects of the transaction involving Luminaire, a health-care product distributor.

Dix said PHSA staff, current and former, are "absolutely" assured they can speak freely to Ernst and Young advisor John Bethel, who is overseeing the review, without fear of retaliation. He added this applies even if they believe their severance agreement precludes them from doing so.

A sign on the door of B.C.'s Provincial Health Services Authority headquarters, located in a downtown Vancouver building, notifies visitors that access is restricted during renovations. A whistleblower with inside knowledge of the agency alleges that it spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on unnecessary renovations to its executive offices among other misspending of money that was supposed to go toward fighting the pandemic. (Eric Rankin/CBC)

PHSA responds

The PHSA, in a statement, said little in reaction to Friday's announcement.

"We have been and continue to be fully supportive of the review and we now welcome the recommendations as an opportunity to ensure public confidence in PHSA and its leadership

The authority also said it welcomed the review into the mask purchase but cannot comment further at this time.

"PHSA is home to extraordinary people, doing remarkable life-changing and life-saving work. We will continue to support them in serving the citizens of British Columbia," the statement continued.

Benoit Morin, president and CEO of the PHSA, earns $352,000 a year, and his accommodation and a car are provided, part of his relocation package from Montreal. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Concerns about new CEO

The whistleblowers said the problems began with the hiring of new president and CEO Morin in February.

In addition to the misspending allegations, they told CBC several key senior executives who oversaw spending at the authority are no longer employed there. Dix, on Friday, confirmed the direction to the authority not to change senior executive leadership was motivated by the departure of these financial watchdogs.

He said it was implied they were let go for raising concerns about what was happening at the authority and there was a need to "clear the air."

In addition, Dix ordered the authority to eliminate the position of chief of staff. He said the position is inconsistent with what other health authorities are doing.

The chief of staff, he added, is already serving as vice-president of human resources and will continue to hold that position.

As for the renovations of executive offices, Dix said they were "clearly poorly timed at the very least."

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is an award-winning journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at liam.britten@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten.

With files from Eric Rankin

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