TORONTO – Alice Keung (pictured), a top eHealth Ontario executive who was criticized for taking taxpayer-funded PhD courses, is departing with $252,000 in severance pay, according to an article in the Toronto Star.
Chief operating officer Keung “has decided to leave … and to pursue other interests,” chief executive Cynthia Morton said in a memo to staff at the electronic health records agency.
The doctorate in infometrics at Carleton University in Ottawa was defended as relevant to Keung’s job, but she dropped out of the program after questions were raised by the Progressive Conservative opposition.
Conservative MPP Michael Harris was critical upon hearing about the severance and the incomplete PhD, which by the spring of 2013 had cost $10,000 – including $6,000 in airfare. “That money basically went down the drain,” charged Harris (Kitchener-Conestoga).
He has previously described the educational expense as part of “a culture of entitlement” at the agency, where consultants earning up to $3,000 a week to create electronic medical records and once expensed tea and cookies to taxpayers before former premier Dalton McGuinty cracked down with new rules.
Keung was second-in-command to Morton, who has been CEO since September. Keung did not reply to an email from the Star and sent word through eHealth officials that she declined to comment on the nature of her departure.
The severance pay, worth roughly a year of salary and benefits, was triggered under a contract Keung negotiated before going to eHealth from the Ministry of Health four years ago.
Harris said he was surprised Keung, who was responsible for building the secure network of electronic health records for patients, did not finish the doctoral studies. “She flew to Ottawa to do it and all of sudden decided it wasn’t worth it,” he told the Star.
“The PhD in Ottawa, perhaps, shouldn’t have been approved. When she got called out on it, she stopped doing it.”
At the time of the controversy, then health minister Deb Matthews defended the PhD courses in the implementation of information technology for Keung, saying they were approved and part of a “continuing education” policy in place since 2000 when the Conservatives were in power.
Keung chose Carleton and travelled to Ottawa because it was the only school offering part-time doctorates.
It’s not clear what will happen to the post Keung held as chief operating officer, said eHealth spokesman Robert Mitchell. “That position could be retooled into another role,” Mitchell said.
Morton said in the memo to staff that Keung will help with “transition planning” over the next few weeks. The agency is in the final stages of rolling out systems linking electronic health records between hospitals.
More than 10 million Ontarians now have electronic health records and more doctors are converting their clinics to electronic health records, so they can quickly access tests, X-rays and other information online.
EHealth and the Liberal government were criticized in 2013 after the previous chief executive, Greg Reed, got a $406,250 severance payout following four years on the job.
Reed was forced by Matthews to cancel promised pay hikes and bonuses for staff who later filed a class-action lawsuit and won $7.16 million in a court decision.