Centre for Health Information says criticism from auditor general makes its job harder
It’s been a busy year for the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Health Information, and it has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
It is making good progress and leading the country when it comes to some of its projects aimed at bringing provincewide electronic health records to Newfoundland and Labrador.
But the centre has also garnered attention for last winter’s auditor general’s report, which raised serious issues about exorbitant raises for top executives, and questionable practices when it comes to salaries and hiring.
This week, the centre held its annual general meeting, and CEO Mike Barron sat down with The Telegram to talk about the work it has been doing.
He said the auditor general’s report was a distraction for the centre, but it has been trying to deal with it.
“It is a distraction, of course, because we’re still in a position where we don’t know where our employees’ compensation scales, where they will fall over the next little while,” Barron said.
Auditor General Terry Paddon reported the centre wasn’t holding job competitions for senior positions, that employees at the centre seemed to be doing the same job, but getting paid up to $27,000 more and that some top executives saw their pay more than double in a span of four years.
The Centre for Health Information is primarily funded by taxpayer dollars; last year, it received
$25 million in funding from the provincial government, and since 2008 it has received $51 million from the federal government.
Barron said the centre is going through the process of bringing salaries in line with the rest of the public service.
But he said in recent years it has been at the leading edge in Canada when it comes to developing electronic health records, and it’s going to be harder to do that if it plays by the same rules as the rest of the public service.
“It will be harder for us to recruit and retain the type of people we’ve successfully been able to recruit and retain in the past,” Barron said. “The reality is that if you’re looking to get something done in a strict timeline — and of course, project management requires those strict timelines — you’ve got to hire the people that are going to be able to do it.”
The centre has definitely been punching above its weight. The federal government provides money to different provinces to develop new electronic health record infrastructure, which can then be copied by other provinces. Barron said by being on the forefront, Newfoundland and Labrador has been getting its share and then some.
“We’re actually developing standards that future pharmacy networks across the country will be using,” he said. “We don’t get the money until we show the results, so there’s a lot of risk involved for the province. So that’s where you need the high expertise, the people that make sure we can meet those responsibilities.”
The province has also been ahead of the curve on a client registry system, and a medical imaging archive.
But Liberal health critic Andrew Parsons said that’s no excuse for ignoring the government rules when it comes to hiring and pay scales.
“I get that they’re doing very important work. I’m not trying to diminish or take away from the work in any way, shape or form,” Parsons said. “But at the end of the day it’s a publicly funded group, and when the AG shows that you’re not following the same rules as everybody else, is everybody else’s work not as important?”
Parsons said that at a time when the government is cutting budgets in other departments, the Centre for Health Information’s budget is going up.
“You know what? There’s cuts across the board everywhere else.” Parsons said. “Is the work that we’re doing in our health boards and our education system not as important?
Health Minister Susan Sullivan was unavailable to do an interview with The Telegram. A spokesman sent a statement to The Telegram on Sullivan’s behalf.
The statement said that they’re working on a plan to bring the centre’s pay scale back in line with the rest of the government.
“Like all provincial government entities, the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Health Information has a responsibility to prudently and responsibly manage their resources,” the statement said. “The centre has brought forward their new compensation model. Currently, the Department of Health and Community Services along with the Human Resource Secretariat are reviewing the proposal and will be delivering feedback to the centre in the near future.”