Health minister, department contradict each other over management of mobile mental health

P.E.I.’s health minister contradicted his own department Wednesday, saying the private company Medavie Health Services won’t in fact be managing the province’s new mobile mental health units whenever they finally hit the road.

Change in police role on response units is one of two apparent reversals for government

P.E.I.'s Minister of Health and Wellness Ernie Hudson says private company Medavie Health Services won't be managing the province's mobile mental health crisis response service, despite his own department's assertion that will be the case. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

P.E.I.'s health minister contradicted his own department Wednesday, saying the private company Medavie Health Services won't in fact be managing the province's new mobile mental health units whenever they finally hit the road.

In a second reversal for government Wednesday, Minister of Health and Wellness Ernie Hudson also confirmed the role police officers will play on the units has changed — again.

The mobile health units have been talked about for the past four years, going back to the days of the previous Liberal government, and are intended as part of a system of supports to help Islanders undergoing a mental health crisis.

But implementation of the new system is behind schedule and details of the plan seem to keep changing.

On Wednesday, Hudson said police will only attend calls with the response units if deemed necessary when an incoming call for assistance is triaged.

That follows the initial model put forward by a group of experts and clinicians, but contradicts what government has said on previous occasions — that police would be embedded in the units and go out on every call to protect the safety of health workers.

In February, officials with Health PEI told MLAs on the province's standing committee on health and social development that 19 officers had received training to be part of the units.

But on Wednesday, Hudson told reporters a registered nurse or social worker would be accompanied on calls by an employee of Medavie "in the vast majority of cases," and only rarely by a police officer when that's determined to be "the appropriate response that's required."

Private company won't manage, says minister

Hudson also told the legislative assembly during question period Wednesday that management of the program is not being transferred to the private company Medavie Health Services, despite previous reports by CBC and the apparent acknowledgement from the premier days before that this was the case.

Medavie is the parent company of Island EMS, the company that provides ambulance services on P.E.I.

"I want to clarify and emphasize that we are not moving the management of the rollout of the mobile response units to Island EMS or Medavie," Hudson told the house, in response to a question from the Official Opposition. 

"It is a mental-health-led initiative that will be partnered, certainly, with Medavie, Island EMS, but it is led by the Department of Health and Wellness."

But on Tuesday, Hudson's department sent a presentation to unions involved with the mobile mental health program saying the opposite.

One slide in a Powerpoint presentation sent to P.E.I. unions by the province's Health Department explaining the plan to roll out the province's new mobile mental health crisis response service. The day after this was sent, the health minister told the legislative assembly Medavie Health Services would not be managing the service. (provided)

Under the heading "Medavie Health Services' leadership," one slide in the presentation says the company "will operationalize and manage the integrated mobile mental health and addictions response service and co-ordinate the partnerships necessary to connect patients with the appropriate care."

Questioned by reporters, Hudson offered no explanation as to why his account was contradicted by his own department, except to assert that his explanation was the correct one.

When asked why Island EMS was being put in charge of mobile mental health during question period on March 12, Premier Dennis King replied saying there was no "sinister attempt to hide" the changes happening with the program, and that he hoped those changes would help make the service operational.

Opposition echoes union concerns

The P.E.I. Nurses' Union has raised concerns about its members working under the direction of a private company while being employed by the province — which is how government has described the working arrangement to unions — and said having Medavie manage mobile mental health amounts to "privatization" of the service.

The Official Opposition took up those concerns during question period Wednesday.

Opposition health critic Trish Altass says the P.E.I. government has written a 'blank cheque' for Medavie Health Services by announcing the company will manage the province's mobile mental health response service before signing a contract with the company. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"There wasn't even a contract signed with Island EMS before announcing they would be taking over as the leads on the mobile crisis teams," said Opposition health critic Trish Altass.

"Announcing this before you've completed the contract negotiations is like handing over a blank cheque to a private company, Medavie."

Hudson denied the service is being privatized.

Later, during debate on a Liberal motion calling on government to fast-track deployment of mobile mental health teams, Opposition leader Peter Bevan-Baker said "when it comes to this issue of rolling out the mental health crisis teams, this government has been spectacularly unclear."

"That lack of clarity, that lack of consistency is what erodes trust and confidence in what this government is doing."

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Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.