A Montreal regional health authority agreed to pay consultants for advice on how to talk about the impacts of the novel coronavirus after being told there was no way to know how much the contract would cost.
Consulting firm TACT Intelligence-conseil explained this in an email sent by its co-founder on the morning of April 10, 2020, as she delivered a copy of the proposed contract to Lynne McVey, chief executive of the Montreal West Island Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre (CIUSSS).
“Without having all the details and knowing how things will work, we have provided our hourly rates instead of putting the total,” wrote TACT’s Manon Genest, in the email, sent to McVey and released to Global News through access to information legislation.
“We can keep you up to date on the fees on a daily basis if you wish.”
The CIUSSS wound up spending at least $140,000 in the first 21 days of the contract from April 10 to April 30, Global News revealed earlier this week.
The health authority said the firm was hired to help it respond to questions from journalists and manage meetings with elected officials and it has maintained its relationship with TACT in May and June.
But it didn’t respond to a question from Global News about whether it was tracking spending on the contract as Genest had suggested in her email. It also refused to provide the current cost of the contract, suggesting that another access to information request would be needed to obtain that information.
The bill for services in April shows that at least 12 different people at the firm charged thousands of dollars for their services, including three who charged about $20,000 each.
Health Minister Christian Dubé, appointed by Premier François Legault as health minister on June 22, said on Tuesday that he would review the spending.
His department later explained on Friday that the local health authority hadn’t informed it about the contract, but that the CIUSSS had a responsibility to respect the rules regarding public contracts.
It also appeared to defend the process taken by the CIUSSS in an email sent to Global News.
“It’s up to the CIUSSS to explain the reasons for its contract with TACT,” the ministry said in the email.
“Based on the information we have, the rules in place were respected.”
The West Island health authority defended the contract earlier in the week, 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.”
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It also posted a notice that it was looking to hire a new media relations employee on Tuesday, one day after Global’s report about the TACT contract. It had previously hired one other media relations staffer in April.
The CIUSSS has estimated that its communications office is supposed to have about 21 full-time positions, including four in McVey’s office.
Overall, the health authority is one of the largest in Canada, employing nearly 11,000 people and serving a population of about 370,000.
Greg Kelley, Opposition Liberal MNA from the West Island riding of Jacques Cartier, participated in regular COVID-19 meetings by videoconference with the CIUSSS, led by McVey. He said he believed the health authority was doing a good job keeping them informed.
But he said he believed the contract was part of a larger pattern of efforts to focus on messaging, pointing to a separate contract between the Quebec government and international consulting firm, McKinsey. The government secured the McKinsey contract, worth $1.72 million, in April to get urgently needed advice on how to safely lift lockdown measures.
“You just sort of wondered, what is more important to this government?” Kelley said in an interview with Global News. “Is it communicating an image that makes them look good, or is it actually putting all the resources up front to fight the pandemic of what actually has to be done.”
The government hasn’t released any information that would indicate whether the McKinsey contract also includes a requirement for the firm to provide it with advice on messaging.
Dubé’s office didn’t immediately offer a response to Kelley’s comments, but the Legault government has said that the McKinsey contract was “essential” in order to ensure the safety of residents, based on difficult circumstances.
“As a result, it’s urgent to have access to modelling that would allow for an understanding of different possible trajectories in the evolution of COVID-19 and the capacity of the healthcare system to treat these cases,” the government said on a Quebec website that posts information about public contracts.
“Given that there’s an urgency to act rapidly, the ministry doesn’t have enough time to proceed with a call for tenders in order to award a contract.”
McKinsey didn’t respond to a request for comment from Global News on Friday afternoon, but the company told Le Devoir in May that it had relevant experience in the management of public health issues and that it was working in concert with other governments to support the response to a humanitarian and economic crisis.
Kelley said it was now time for Quebec’s National Assembly to start reviewing recent public spending after it granted special powers for the government to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
“It wasn’t necessarily just a carte blanche to go out and do whatever you wanted,” Kelley said. “You have to be super vigilant in these times that the money is still being spent correctly and monitored.
“So I’ll wait for Mr. Dubé to provide us all the information, as he promised to Global, of how this money was spent and why exactly.”
The West Island CIUSSS’ contract with TACT started a few hours before news emerged on April 10 that there had been more than two dozen deaths at Résidence Herron, a private home for seniors, after representatives from the West Island health authority had arrived to help.
At least 49 people have died in total at Herron, according to the Quebec coroner’s office, which is investigating the matter. The Health Ministry, which is running a separate investigation, has said at least 26 people who died at Herron had COVID-19.
Kelley said he’s waiting to hear more about what these investigations find, including a separate investigation by Montreal police.
“I just, in my heart, hope nobody would purposely mislead the West Island citizens and the loved ones of the people of the Herron,” he said.