Sask. NDP sends letter to Minister of Health requesting report on vendor-sponsored travel

The Saskatchewan NDP wants the government to publicly disclose cases of vendor-sponsored travel by Saskatchewan Health Authority staff.

NDP Leader Ryan Meili sent a letter to Minister of Health Jim Reiter asking for a review of all cases "where the health authority signed a contract following vendor-sponsored travel."

"We need to be putting people first not the perks of people working within government. When we're making decisions about how we're spending public dollars those decisions need to be based on what is the wisest choice not on who offers the nicest vacation options," Meili told reporters Wednesday.

Meili referred to the most recent report by the provincial auditor released in December, which looked at vendor-sponsored trips.

The report found that in two of the seven cases, the SHA signed a contract after employees had their travel paid by the seller. In four cases, staff did not obtain formal approval before travelling. In three cases of travel outside of Canada, the business reason was unclear, according to the report.

Auditor Judy Ferguson recommended the SHA implement a code of conduct policy including permitted vendor-sponsored travel.

Vendor-sponsored trips 'widespread,' says Meili

The auditor's report found a draft conflict of interest policy by the SHA. As of March 2019, no SHA senior managers had signed the annual declaration but all board members had.

The auditor's report found the draft policy "insufficiently outlines" what is considered acceptable travel paid by the vendor.

Ferguson wrote the contract should have explicit provisions; if it doesn't, she said it "can create a perception of a vendor attempting to court favour or influence the employee for future contracts."

Meili called the practice of vendor-sponsored trips "widespread."

"We also want to have a clear policy that this will not happen any further because to date we still don't have a policy that makes it clear that this isn't something that is acceptable," Meili said.

On Wednesday, the government released a statement in response to the NDP's concerns.

"As of December 31, 2019, the SHA has a conflict of interest policy in place that includes vendor-sponsored travel provisions," the statement said.

In February, Cam Swan, the deputy minister to the premier, released a review of vendor-sponsored trips. He said there were "no cases of reported vendor-sponsored travel that did not meet learning and development or procurement requirements."

The SHA reported 30 cases of vendor-sponsored travel between January 2017 and December 2018.

As part of Swan's report, three recommendations were made to strengthen the existing code of conduct framework for public sector employees:

  1. Expansion of the Conflict of Interest Policy to include clarity on vendor relationship and acceptance of gifts including a definition of permitted vendor sponsor travel.  
  2. Every employee within the Government of Saskatchewan undertake conflict of interest training.
  3. Updating current travel approval forms to indicate whether the purpose of travel is vendor-sponsored.

"Our government is confident that the recommendations made in this report, which were accepted in full by the Government of Saskatchewan, address the Provincial Auditor's concerns," the statement read.

Auditor reported on eHealth travel in June

In 2018, eHealth employees were fired after they were found in a conflict of interest related to travel.

CBC reported that a private printing firm doing work for the government flew eHealth employees to North Carolina to attend the PGA Championship and business meetings.

Some of those employees were fired for violating eHealth's conflict of interest policy.

A former senior eHealth official previously told CBC that employees from several health regions went on a trip to Austin, Texas, with all expenses covered by a vendor.

In June, Ferguson published a report on the eHealth travel trips. She found eight instances where eHealth employees inappropriately went on trips sponsored by vendors and 10 cases where contracts were sole-source without written justification.

Her report urged eHealth to improve its policies.