Liberal MHA Eddie Joyce seemed testy as he pressed officials from the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Health Information Thursday morning during a provincial Public Accounts meeting.
“So you didn’t follow the government policy?” he asked, talking about the centre’s hiring practices.
“We had our own policy,” CEO Mike Barron replied.
“That’s obvious,” Joyce fired back, with a laugh.
In January, Auditor General Terry Paddon reported the centre, which is funded by taxpayers, was paying employees substantially more for doing the same work as core civil servants. Also, top executives have received major raises — in one case, as high as 119 per cent — in the five years since the centre was created.
As the centre grew quickly and received more funding from the province and from Ottawa to do their job — setting up a system of electronic health records — more staff were brought on, and the added duties of managers justified larger salaries.
On Thursday at Public Accounts, MHAs pressed officials to find out whether Ross Wiseman was in the loop about the big raises.
“You get frustrated when you see 100 per cent increase in salaries, and you ask, did you get permission from the Department of Health, and they say, well, our CEO Billy Fanning spoke to the minister, which was Ross Wiseman,” Joyce said. “They asked for it in writing. He wouldn’t give it in writing. They asked for a clarification, and there was none coming from the minister. So once again, we see Ross Wiseman, the minister of health, with a wink and a nod, like, go ahead.”
New Democrat MHA Christopher Mitchelmore judged the situation differently. He said he thought the centre was going off on its own without proper oversight.
“It appears to me that they were operating on their own,” he said. “The board chair made the motion to move this forward without having any supporting documentation or approval by the minister — which is said in the legislation — and then when the vote actually happened all board members voted in favour except for the representative from the Department of Health, which was the assistant deputy minister. That would have given indication to me that the department doesn’t approve,” Mitchelmore said.
Barron was at pains to explain to politicians Thursday the work that the centre is doing is very technical, and it needed “expertise that’s not readily available.”
He explained that was part of the reasons for higher pay.
He told The Telegram its now working to bring its policies for pay and hiring in line with the rest of the government.
“We’ve begun the process to work with government on a road map that would lay out the steps for alignment with government compensation and policy. With regards to policies, we’ve already submitted 20 of 24 compensation policies to government that have been completely rewritten to align with government,” he said. “The other four will be rewritten once the re-evaluation of the positions is done.”
PC MHA David Brazil said he’s happy to hear that. He said when he originally read the auditor general’s report he was concerned about the situation, but he’s satisfied the centre is back on the right track.
Brazil said that, similar to Nalcor and other specialized arms of government, the pay may need to be a bit higher to get the right people, but things need to come back in line.