Auditor General 2020 report roundup

By Sabrina Nanji December 8, 2020

In the past, the auditor general’s annual report is considered an early Christmas present for journalists and Queen’s Park watchers who hold the powers-that-be accountable, because it tends to be chock full of government snafus.

But there was no purported upside-down bridges or other similar scandal to be found in Bonnie Lysyk’s 2020 report, which struck a relatively subdued tone compared to her earlier audits assessing the PC’s Covid response and environmental policies.

Even Premier Doug Ford — who took personal shots at the AG after those audits — said “I love this report,” adding that he will sit down with cabinet, deputy ministers and the public service to hash out all of the AG’s criticisms. “There’s some great stuff in there.”

The 13 value-for-money audits, tabled Monday, shed light on a smorgasbord of issues including shoddy oversight, operational effectiveness and consumer protection across a range of sectors.

Here’s the breakdown:

Virtual patient care needs scrutiny
There should be better oversight of physician OHIP billings for virtual care, something the government temporarily allowed during the pandemic.

The AG unearthed several cases of “significantly high” doctor billings for virtual care, including one doc who charged $1.7 million for remote services and $1.9 million for in-person services, and reported seeing more than 300 patients virtually in one day.

While overall progress on virtual care has been slow, the AG also raised concerns about more private options cropping up, which could pose a risk to equal access to health care.

PC’s ad spending doubles
The Ford government more than doubled how much it spends on advertising, to $37.59 million in fiscal 2019-20. One hundred and twenty-five ads — almost 20 per cent or $9.47 million worth — wouldn’t fly under the AG’s old oversight powers because they were too partisan or self-congratulatory.

One of the ads in question was the anti-carbon-tax ad campaign “One Little Nickel,” featuring streams of coins pouring out of gas pumps, heating vents and grocery store shelves. “A primary objective of this campaign was to foster a negative impression of the federal government and its carbon pricing policy,” the AG said. It also “aimed to foster a positive impression of the provincial governing party by saying that Ontario has a ‘better’ plan for the environment.”

Lysyk has said the change to her powers under the previous Liberal government effectively reduced her oversight to a rubber stamp. PCs campaigned on restoring those powers, but more than two years into their mandate, it hasn’t happened yet.

Covid also threw a wrench in the AG’s oversight over the Ministry of Health’s advertising in particular. The ministry exempted its advertising from the AG’s oversight when the state of emergency was declared on March 17 because it dealt with “an urgent matter affecting health and safety.” Between then and the end of the fiscal year about two weeks later on March 31, the ministry ran 72 ads to the tune of $2.05 million.

More people in retirement homes better suited to be in long-term care
The AG found gaps at the Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority, which oversees Ontario’s 770 retirement homes. There are more and more hospital patients getting discharged to those homes — 4,200 last year — who may have needed higher levels of care in a long-term care home.

There is no official oversight over these residents, designated as alternate level of care (ALC) patients. Neither the Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority, the Ministry of Health, or the province’s LHINs perform inspections or handle complaints for ALC beds in retirement homes, which are sometimes subsidized by the province, per the report.

NDP Seniors critic Joel Harden accused the retirement home industry of treating ALC patients as “cash cows” by “collecting their rent without providing them with basic care.”

‘Too dry’ cannabis, casino money laundering remains ‘major risk’
The Alcohol and Gaming Commission, which regulates booze sales, gambling, horse racing and cannabis, “does not use its compliance tools effectively to provide adequate oversight” of those four sectors. For example, it only followed up on two-thirds of complaints about cannabis stores in the past two years.

The underground cannabis market is still thriving, representing 80 per cent of sales. Tokers preferred illegal substances over the government-run Ontario Cannabis Store or licensed private pot shops because the weed is “more potent” and “fresh.” OCS’s product was deemed “too dry.”

Tracking cannabis inventory is also problematic. Retail shops had 84,228 fewer units of cannabis on hand than was recorded in their inventory systems, and the AGCO had no way of knowing “that these units were not lost, stolen or diverted elsewhere.”

Little is being done by the AGCO to address the risk of money laundering in casinos. From 2017 to 2019, more than 9,700 suspicious transactions were flagged, worth $340 million, but just a paltry 23 charges were laid in that time.

“Despite having 67 OPP officers positioned in casinos to oversee gaming integrity and to investigate potential money laundering activities, few charges were laid, low amounts of cash were seized, and few people were barred from casinos,” the AG said.

Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy said tackling money laundering is a “top priority” and the government is working with the AGCO “to do better” and will come up with a “detailed action plan,” though details are scant.

Last year’s “dirty money” report commissioned by B.C. estimated $40 billion in criminal cash was laundered in Ontario from 2011 to 2015.

Waitlist for adults with developmental disabilities grows
The waitlist for services for adults with developmental disabilities has ballooned by 80 per cent in the last five years, to almost 34,200 last year, despite the fact funding has nearly doubled in that time, to $859 million.

That said, “limited funding” means not all people receive the support they are eligible for.

Further compounding the problem are inconsistent service levels and recurring compliance and enforcement issues.

Hamilton LRT costs were ‘significantly understated’ by the Grits
The former Liberal government was aware as early as 2016 that the price tag for building the Hamilton LRT was higher than the public commitment of $1 billion, which was only for construction costs, but it kept the increases under wraps. Behind the scenes, Treasury Board approved a nearly $3-billion budget in 2016, then revised that up to $3.65 billion in March 2018.

Those estimates “did not represent” the full cost of the LRT and were “significantly understated.” Lysyk says the $5.5 billion cost cited by Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney when the project was abruptly cancelled late last year was “reasonable.” That price included 30 years of capital and operating costs.

Premier Ford weighed in during his daily presser: “How can you trust Steven Del Duca when he was totally dishonest and he knew the whole time it wasn’t the accurate figure?”

PRESTO fare woes
Over the past five years Metrolinx pocketed $2.2 million that would have been refunded to passengers experiencing train delays or cancellations, but was never claimed. Lysyk’s report notes Metrolinx doesn’t automatically refund customers even though “it has the technology and necessary data to do so.”

The AG clocked 6,700 fare-related IT incidents with PRESTO cards, including one where 940 customers were charged twice for monthly passes on the same day. There were 45,000 issues with tap and vending machines over the last five years.

MX’s lack of centralized procurement for IT resulted in redundant systems that duplicated functions that already existed in other departments and cost overruns of $152 million.

The transit agency’s cybersecurity is “weak” and information stored on its servers is not “consistently safeguarded,” meaning personal info of Metrolinx employees and customers — as well as “sensitive” corporate info — is “not secure.”

Lack of coordination on Indigenous affairs
Only 17 per cent of on-reserve households are connected to basic internet service, which acts as a barrier for Indigenous communities trying to access programs and services.

The ministry itself isn’t doing so well to advertise and coordinate those opportunities; of the 140 programs on offer, only 11 were posted to the government website, and the ministry could only identify 30 of them.

Mourners face ‘pressure tactics’
Ontarians aren’t getting enough info on funeral pricing and services “so that they are not taken advantage of in their time of mourning the death of a loved one.” Grieving families have had to deal with high pressure sales tactics or misleading information from funeral homes.

Lysyk’s office enlisted “mystery” shoppers to go to 100 funeral homes, cemeteries and crematoriums in the summer and found that half applied pressure or gave misleading info.

The Bereavement Authority of Ontario needs to take a stronger regulatory approach with proactive inspections of funeral homes and licensing of cemetery operators, the AG said.

Weak condo watchdogs
Condo oversight needs to be beefed up. There is a need for more info on how condo fees are set and managed, while the “limited” mandates of the Condominium Authority and Condominium Authority Tribunal “do not sufficiently protect condo owners against many of the common issues they may encounter in their daily condo living.”

The Condominium Management Regulatory Authority hasn’t been effectively addressing complaints or inspecting condo managers, the AG added.

Old school curriculum
Schools are teaching from outdated textbooks and lesson plans on a broad range of subjects. About half of the current curriculum was last updated about 10 to 14 years ago, including computer science courses.

The art of the reveal
Art galleries and museums — provincially funded to the tune of $52 million annually — aren’t showing off a big chunk of their works. More than 70 per cent of pieces at the Art Gallery of Ontario haven’t been displayed since they were acquired, while half of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection has been hidden for over 20 years.