Nova Scotia

Opposition accuses N.S. government of flouting transparency through untendered contracts

Opposition leaders say the Nova Scotia government has “set the political culture back” decades through the use of untendered contracts and a lack of transparency in its work to address problems in the health-care system.

The minister responsible says he’s committed to tightening up the process — while making no apologies for trying to go faster to improve health care.

Auditor General Kim Adair released a report earlier this month flagging the “highly unusual transaction” the government used to purchase an unfinished hotel for the purpose of converting it to a patient-care facility.

Among other things, Adair found the province has spent $81 million on untendered contracts related to the unfinished hotel property at 21 Hogan Court in Bedford and another site in Bayers Lake.

The report also revealed, for the first time, $18 million in advisory fees Nova Scotia Health has been paying the global consulting firm EY for work since 2020.

AllNovaScotia.com reported this week that some of that money went toward the development of YouthHealthNS, a new app the province unveiled in November. The province has spent more than $12 million on the app and AllNovaScotia reported the work was done without going to public tender for the work.

Premier Tim Houston says he’s focused on ‘value for patients,’ not value for money. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

“The app is a good thing. Lots of people are using the app,” Premier Tim Houston told reporters on Thursday.

“I’m confident this is a good thing for Nova Scotians.”

Liberal Leader Zach Churchill doesn’t agree.

Churchill said the province’s health-care crisis is getting worse, despite billions of dollars the Tories have spent since coming to power in 2021. The list of people who need a doctor and wait times for procedures have increased and the province’s ambulance system continues to be overwhelmed, Churchill told reporters.

“I think these guys are old school Tories,” he said.

“They help their friends, they don’t care about tendering contracts — I don’t think they care about taxpayer money. They’re willing to spend big sums of money and achieve very little for Nova Scotians.”

A man in a suite and tie listens to questions.
Liberal Leader Zach Churchill takes questions from reporters on Thursday. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

NDP Leader Claudia Chender said there’s no way to know if the government is getting the best deal it can on contracts when they do not follow proper procurement protocol and the contracts are kept secret.

“There is a reason that we have these processes like tendering and public procurement in government,” she told reporters.

“And no one has spoken more articulately and forcefully about that than Tim Houston — in opposition. Now he doesn’t seem to care.”

But Houston said the development of a transitional care unit at 21 Hogan Court will create 68 beds that can be occupied by people who would otherwise be taking up hospital beds. These patients would be people who no longer require treatment in hospital, but are not ready to go home or are awaiting a long-term care placement.

He said the government’s approach will have the existing building ready two years faster than if it were built from scratch. A consultant’s report recommended against using the site because it would not be appropriate for some patients.

A woman stands in front of microphones.
NDP Leader Claudia Chender says the premier had lots to say about the importance of transparency when he was in opposition, but that seems to have changed since he formed government. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

The app, meanwhile, is intended to help people navigate the health-care system, including finding the nearest available clinic and booking tests. A pilot project is granting 12,000 patients access to their medical records through the app, with the plan to expand that provincewide this summer.

The province has spent thousands of dollars promoting the app through a direct mail campaign and ads on public radio, at movie theatres and online.

Houston said he has “great respect for the auditor general,” but he said the focus of her report was on value for money. The premier said he’s focused on “value for patients.”

Service Nova Scotia Minister Colton LeBlanc, whose department advises government departments and entities on procurement, could not say if there are other secret contracts yet to be disclosed, similar to the deal with EY.

But LeBlanc noted that the government accepted all of the auditor general’s recommendations and he said they would be incorporated into the province’s procurement policies. The government remains committed to fixing health care as quickly as possible, he said.

A man in a suit and tie.
Service Nova Scotia Minister Colton LeBlanc says his government has accepted the recommendations in a recent auditor general’s report and they will be incorporated into the provincial procurement policies. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

A spokesperson for the health authority said EY was first engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to secure and distribute personal protective equipment. There are provisions during a state of emergency that allow government bodies to bypass alternative procurement documentation in an effort to speed up the process.

Alternative procurement practices are special or exceptional practices that allow deviation from the procurement processes that would normally be required.

But Adair found that the health authority then started tacking other work on to the agreement with EY, including services associated with the purchase and ongoing development of the unfinished hotel at 21 Hogan Court. That didn’t follow proper procedure, the AG found.

“In retrospect, Nova Scotia Health could have issued additional procurement documentation,” Nova Scotia Health spokesperson Jennifer Lewandowski said in an emailed statement. The health authority does not have a full breakdown of where the money paid to EY went that can be provided, she said.

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