By the time it’s finished playing itself out, when the schemes have all been unravelled and the books fully opened up and the police investigation concluded, the sorry mess at the air-ambulance service Ornge could wind up costing Ontarians tens of millions of dollars.
The much bigger cost – the one that the province really can’t afford as it tries to wrestle down a $16-billion deficit – might be the loss of an effective health minister.
Deb Matthews will keep her job for the foreseeable future; she’s too well-regarded in government circles to be a sacrificial lamb. But as she stood there on Wednesday, trying to keep her cool during the brutal press conference that followed Auditor-General Jim McCarter’s damning Ornge report, it was hard not to see her as a diminished force.
Two years ago, shortly after being named to her post, Ms. Matthews won a very public fight with pharmacies to find big drug savings that had eluded her predecessors. The communication skills and the iron will that she displayed on that file gave some hope that she’d be able to win other, tougher battles to limit health-care costs.
But with those battles now looming large in the form of nascent contract negotiations with the Ontario Medical Association and a push to restructure the way hospitals are funded, Ms. Matthews has lost much of her political capital.
Until recently seen in the health sector as a force to be reckoned with, she’s now perceived as vulnerable. While there’s a sense that she’s a good minister dealt a bad hand, there’s also an awareness that – having failed to stop Ornge from abusing public dollars – she’s lost her ability to rally the public behind her by presenting herself as a tireless defender of the public interest.