eHealth conflict of interest rules don’t meet ‘good practice’: Sask. auditor

After two employees were fired for accepting vendor-sponsored trips, Saskatchewan's auditor is calling on eHealth to improve conflict of interest rules. File / Global News

Saskatchewan’s auditor says eHealth needs to improve their policies to clear up conflict of interest issues and reduce vendor influence.

This comes after three eHealth employees took all-expense, vendor paid trips to a PGA event and the Indy 500. Two of the employees were fired. The third already left eHealth before disciplinary action could be taken.

Through her examination, auditor Judy Ferguson found eight instances of vendor-sponsored travel where a vendor covered additional costs without specific provisions to do so. This includes the Indy 500 and PGA trips. Two of these trips involved travel to award the vendor a contract.

The examination period covered September 2017 to Sept. 2018.

READ MORE: Opposition calls for clarity on vendor-sponsored travel after eHealth firings

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The report says good practice recommends vendors only pay for these kinds of travel costs if it is laid out in the contract.

Ferguson’s office also found eHealth’s conflict of interest and code of conduct policies do not include consideration for identifying and managing potential conflicts of interest. This is directed at staff involved in purchasing decisions.

Staff involved in vendor evaluations failed to complete written declarations of conflict of interest and declare potential conflicts, according to the report.

These policies also do not identify what is acceptable vendor-sponsored travel and how employees should respond to potential vendor conflict of interest, according to the report.

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“eHealth needs to provide explicit guidance on when it is acceptable for vendors to pay for staff travel and training, and for identifying and mitigating vendor conflicts of interest,” Ferguson said.

“Improved procurement policies to reduce vendor influence and conflicts of interest will encourage fair and equitable treatment of vendors, as well as protect public funds and promote transparency and accountability.”

The report identified five employees with undeclared conflicts of interest, uncompleted conflict of interest forms, or simply refused, without consequence, to acknowledge in writing they read and understood eHealth’s code of conduct policy.

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Ferguson recommends eHealth update its code of conduct and conflict of interest policies, increase awareness, reinforce the importance of compliance and outline the consequences of non-compliance.

Current eHealth CEO Jim Hornell took the job in October, 2018. His term is outside the review’s time-frame, which includes a revision and retraining of conflict of interest rules. He admitted that eHealth isn’t where it needs to be.

“We have work to do. There’s no question. We accept the provincial auditor’s report. She set a very high, but reasonable set of expectations for us, and we’re going to do our best to live up to them. Work is underway, things have already been done,” Hornell said.

Revisions to the code of conduct and conflict of interest policies are set to be presented to eHealth’s board this month, according to Hornell. He said manager training is underway on conflict rules and will continue throughout the rest of the year.

Since the auditor’s review took place, he said all employees have signed and reviewed the code of conduct rules.

The  NDP have been critical of the government’s review of vendor-sponsored travel. Opposition House Leader Nicole Sarauer hopes the recommendations are taken seriously and more transparency is brought to the province’s health record keeper.

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“I think what the auditor’s report shows is that this is a deeper issue and a broader issue than just a few employees, and it’s important for the success of eHealth that these recommendations be taken seriously by the minister,” Sarauer said.

“They said they were going to wait for the recommendations. Those recommendations are here, so the time to act is now.”