Montreal officials used emergency powers to pay for advice on what to say about coronavirus deaths

Click to play video: 'West Island Regional Health Authority spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside communication consultations during the covid19 crisis'
West Island Regional Health Authority spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside communication consultations during the covid19 crisis
WATCH: Global News has learned that the CIUSSS West Island, the health authority that oversees some of the longterm care homes hardest hit by the covid19 crisis, hired a communications firm to help during the pandemic. Global's Felicia Parrillo has this exclusive report – Jun 29, 2020

One of Canada’s largest regional health authorities says it used emergency coronavirus powers to hire a lobbying and communications firm that billed taxpayers more than $140,000 for its first 21 days of work in advising Montreal health-care officials on what to say about dozens of unexplained deaths.

The emergency powers, adopted by Quebec Premier François Legault’s government on March 13, were meant to be used to protect people from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. They gave the health minister extraordinary powers to issue contracts and buy any supplies deemed necessary to protect public health. They also gave the minister special powers to ensure the health-care network maintained adequate staffing levels.

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It’s no secret that the Montreal health authority hired the firm, TACT Intelligence-conseil, for help since the firm’s consultants have been fielding calls from journalists on behalf of regional health officials since April. But details of what triggered the contract and how much TACT was charging were kept secret until the health authority was forced to release documents to Global News in response to an access-to-information request.

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Lynne McVey, chief executive of the Montreal West Island Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre (CIUSSS), agreed to hire the lobbying firm hours before the public learned on April 10 that dozens of people had died at Résidence Herron, a private home for seniors near Montreal’s Trudeau airport. At the time, many families were pressing for answers about what was going on at the residence, which by then was under the watch of McVey’s regional team.

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That morning, Manon Genest, a co-founder from TACT Intelligence-conseil, sent McVey a “crisis management” plan in an email obtained by Global News.

“I’m virtually introducing you to the team dedicated to your organization over the next few days (their bios are in our proposal),” Genest wrote in the email, sent at 10:38 a.m. “Based on the urgency of the situation, they are ready to get to work today, thanks for letting us know when would be a convenient time we can discuss getting started.”

Herron became the scene of one of Canada’s worst COVID-19 tragedies in April. At least 49 people have died at Herron since the beginning of the global coronavirus pandemic, according to the Quebec coroner’s office.

Quebec’s health ministry has confirmed that at least 26 of the deaths were related to the coronavirus, but other cases at the private residence remain a mystery that has triggered multiple investigations by public health authorities, the Quebec coroner’s office and the Montreal police.

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Click to play video: 'Criminal investigation after 31 deaths at Montreal care home'
Criminal investigation after 31 deaths at Montreal care home

Regional health officials took over the facility after health-care workers and volunteers responded to a request for help from the owners on March 29 and found a horrific scene. The workers and volunteers said the local staff at the private facility, owned by Groupe Katasa, had largely abandoned the 154-bed home, leaving numerous residents lying in their own excrement and without food or water for hours.

Separately, the health authority had also fielded complaints, before it intervened, about at least one worker with COVID-19 symptoms who allegedly interacted with residents and about management at the residence ignoring regional health guidelines by sending residents to a local hospital for treatment during the early days of the pandemic.

What isn’t clear is whether officials from the Montreal West Island CIUSSS made matters worse in the days that followed their arrival.

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Before March 29, four people were dead at Herron, according to a chart released by Katasa. In the days that followed, the death toll rose dramatically into double digits, and no one informed the public until two weeks later on April 10 in the wake of an investigation published by the Montreal Gazette.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 ravaging Canada’s nursing homes'
COVID-19 ravaging Canada’s nursing homes

Hours before the Gazette published its article, TACT proposed to help regional officials from the CIUSSS decide what coronavirus-related information would be shared with families, employees, journalists and members of the public. The firm also agreed to support and manage the CIUSSS’ meetings with elected officials, noting in its contract proposal that three facilities on its territory were already particularly affected by COVID-19.

When asked whether it played a role in any meetings between McVey’s team and the government on April 10, TACT declined to say for “confidentiality reasons.”

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On the next day, McVey and Premier Legault both spoke at separate news conferences in Montreal and Quebec City, confirming 31 deaths and saying that they had called in police to investigate. Legault went as far as to suggest someone had tried to hide the deaths, while McVey said the owners had not co-operated with health authorities until they were ordered to do so. She said this prevented her team from identifying how many people had died.

Lynne McVey speaks outside the Herron residence after the regional health authority took over its operations six weeks ago. Tuesday, May 26, 2020. Global News

Katasa, the owner of Herron, did not immediately respond to questions about the regional authority’s contract with TACT. But it has previously blamed the CIUSSS for being disorganized and unco-operative when it arrived to take control of Herron after March 29. Katasa has also said it struggled like other facilities to procure enough protective gear to help its staff contain the virus and prevent it from spreading and that some of its residents were initially sent to hospital due to advice from their physicians.

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Like the CIUSSS, Katasa also hired its own crisis communications firm, TESLA RP, which started working on the file on April 11.

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Peter Wheeland, who had two parents at Herron, said he found McVey’s comments from April 11 were difficult to believe.

“They were there from the 29th (of March) and they didn’t notice the bodies coming out of the building,” Wheeland said. “I can’t believe that; it seems impossible to me.”

The West Island CIUSSS declined interview requests about its deal with TACT but told Global News in an email that it would not make further comments about the nature of the deaths at the Herron residence due to the ongoing investigations by police, the Health Ministry and the coroner. It also noted that it was “co-operating fully with the authorities.”

Wheeland moved his father out of Herron earlier in March, but his father later tested positive for the coronavirus after being moved to another long-term care facility managed by the same regional health authority and passed away. He said he later spent days seeking answers after his elderly mother started showing symptoms of COVID-19. He wanted to know if local health officials would give his mother a test.

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But as the crisis communications firm took charge of the public statements, Wheeland and others seeking information about their loved ones said they felt left in the dark.

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Keira Whitehead said that after she learned that her father had died, she waited two weeks before someone called her to collect the body and his belongings.

“We hadn’t heard anything,” she said.

Patrizia Di Biase-Leone said she got a call from a health-care worker who wanted to know when her mother would be returning to her private residence after being treated for dehydration and malnutrition at a nearby hospital, the Lakeshore General, in late April. The worker said they hadn’t received any update or information about her health from the hospital, which also falls under the regional health authority.

“Especially at the hospital, I was doing all the calling,” Di Biase-Leone recounted in an interview with Global News.

Wheeland, Whitehead and Di Biase-Leone have also criticized the management of Herron for its own response to the crisis and for not providing them with complete information in the first few weeks of the pandemic.

The owners said they were facing the same challenges as other long-term care homes in late March and had trouble maintaining staffing levels after more than a dozen of their workers were exposed to the virus.

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The health authority told Global News that it has been “very sensitive” about what families and loved ones of Herron residents were going through since the beginning and that it tried to keep them informed on a regular basis.

It also said it organized visits for families so that they could spend time with their loved ones, while respecting health guidelines.

“These visits brought some comfort to residents and their families,” the regional health authority wrote in an email.

It also said the situation had stabilized at the residence and that it was keeping teams in place to ensure things remain under control.

TACT also told Global News that it was continuing to work with the West Island CIUSSS, but that its mandate was specifically focused on supporting the regional health authority in its communications with elected officials and the media during the COVID-19 crisis.

Wheeland said he moved his mother out and into a private apartment, where she has recovered from COVID-19, but he said he remains skeptical about the contract.

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A dozen lobbyists and consultants at TACT charged the regional health authority for more than $100,000 in services from April 10 to 30, according to a bill released through Quebec access-to-information legislation.

While the hourly rate was withheld, four different TACT staffers — Jason Patuano, Guillaume Bérubé, Julie White and Daniel Desharnais, respectively — billed $23,518.75, $22,110, $19,681.25 and $9,787.50 for their time. Two other TACT employees each billed more than $8,000, and Genest, who initiated the contract, billed $7,596.25 over the same period from April 10 to 30.

For Patuano, Bérubé and White, if they had all been working 21 days straight during the period for 10 hours a day, their hourly rates would all be hovering around $100 per hour.

“That’s a pretty expensive price. But it’s important if you’re trying to keep people from knowing what’s actually going on,” Wheeland said. “It’s horrible… What was happening there, we know now is not unique. It was happening all over the place. And I doubt you’re going to find (crisis communications) bills that high for any of the other (health authorities) on the Island of Montreal.”

A spokesman for former Quebec health minister Danielle McCann and newly appointed health minister Christian Dubé referred questions about the issue to the regional health authority and public servants in the department, which didn’t immediately provide any comments.

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The West Island CIUSSS defended the contract in its email correspondence with Global News, describing it as “legitimate” due to the health crisis. It added that its communications team “was also undergoing a restructuring during this same period, with a job vacancy rate of 20 per cent, which, in an effort to obtain the needed support during this time, justified the awarding of the contract.”

When asked why it didn’t hire more staff, the health authority said it had hired at least one new person in mid-April and that all of its efforts were focused on managing the pandemic but that it was planning to post other job notices soon.

Bérubé, White and Desharnais from TACT were all political staffers in the last Quebec Liberal government headed by former premier Philippe Couillard. Genest also listed Desharnais as the lead “strategic adviser” in her April 10 email.

But this role wouldn’t last long.

Less than a week after the contract began, McCann named Desharnais to a position in the Quebec Health Department as an assistant deputy minister of “special projects.”

TACT told Global News in an email that Desharnais informed the firm of his new job on April 15 and that he stopped his work on the contract on April 16 before starting the new job on April 20.

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Desharnais declined to provide details about when he first started his discussions with the ministry about the new job and what steps he took to avoid placing himself in a possible conflict of interest, referring questions to the Health Ministry. Working for TACT, Desharnais was advising his former client and its management of the COVID-19 crisis, while in his new role, he is working for a department that is leading one of the investigations into what happened at Herron.

Staffers at TACT who worked directly on the contract also declined to answer detailed questions about what they were doing, and the firm declined interview requests.

But a senior official at the firm, who hadn’t worked on the contract, denied any conflict of interest and said that none of their staffers were doing any lobbying as part of their work on the contract in supporting meetings with elected officials.

“We only supported our client in its communications with elected officials, aiming to keep them informed of developments during the pandemic and to answer their questions,” wrote Marie-Christine St-Pierre, a director at TACT, in an email. “We have always acted in compliance with the provisions of the Lobbying Acts.”

St-Pierre also noted in her email that she could not confirm whether any TACT staffers reached out to Desharnais after his new appointment in government.

When asked whether she thought it was fair that some of her colleagues were charging more than $100 per hour, compared to many front-line health-care workers who made $20 or $30 an hour, St-Pierre declined to comment.

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The Quebec Health Ministry is no longer providing numbers of active COVID-19 cases at the Herron residence since it considers the outbreak to be under control.

The Montreal West Island health authority is one of the largest in Quebec, overseeing health and social services in nearly 40 per cent of Montreal’s territory at hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities that serve a population of nearly 370,000 people.

According to his biography, Desharnais played a central role in provincial health-care reforms that led to the creation of the health authority on April 1, 2015 as the then-chief of staff to former Quebec health minister Gaétan Barrette.

But part of the changes left the regional authority struggling with its organization, including in its communications team. In summer 2019, it hired TACT, following an open competition, to propose a new communications strategy and support for McVey and the entire West Island CIUSSS.

The $32,000 contract was completed last August and a mandate letter drafted by the health authority said the plan was to be implemented in September. But it’s not clear why officials didn’t complete the implementation in the months that followed.

Meantime, the firm continued its “crisis management” contract in May and June, but the regional health authority refused to tell Global News how much it paid in subsequent months, recommending another access-to-information request.

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While TACT played some role in the meetings that the health authority had with elected officials, much of what they did is shrouded in secrecy. The CIUSSS has refused to release emails that show what work the firm did, arguing that the retrieval of these emails would interfere with its operations. It also refused to share details of its conversations with the lobbying firm in the days before it agreed to the “crisis management” contract.

Quebec’s access-to-information law requires government organizations to share public records upon request unless they have a valid reason to refuse. When refusals occur, Quebec’s access-to-information commission or the courts can intervene to force an organization to release documents, but this process is lengthy and can take months or years to resolve.

Wheeland, who moved his mother out of Herron and into an apartment after she recovered from COVID-19, said he believed that most of the information from TACT that he read in media reports was spin that was designed to mislead or withhold information that families wanted. He said the health authority could have made better use of the money.

“I would think if you’re going to spend money on crisis management, spend it on managing the crisis rather than managing the information, which is what they’re doing,” he said.

— With files from Raquel Fletcher

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