TORONTO - One of the last remaining figures in the eHealth controversy has resigned just weeks after he was grilled by a legislative committee about the $1 billion Ontario has spent on an electronic health records system that's years away from completion.
Deputy health minister Ron Sapsford, appointed in 2005, headed the largest bureaucracy in the Ontario government with a budget of more than $40 billion. He also oversaw the creation of eHealth and served as interim CEO last summer.
Health Minister Deb Matthews acknowledged her deputy's resignation Friday but didn't provide a reason for his departure, which takes effect in the new year.
In the wake of Sapsford's resignation, eHealth also said it had cut two senior vice-presidents from its roster as it attempts to restructure its business and regain the public's confidence. The move is expected to save the agency a quarter million dollars per year.
Opposition critics were quick to attribute Sapsford's resignation to eHealth, a scandal that has already claimed David Caplan, who was forced to resign as health minister last month.
Caplan quit just one day before the auditor general released a scathing report detailing how little value Ontario got for the $1 billion spent trying to create electronic health records. Former eHealth Ontario CEO Sarah Kramer and board chair Dr. Alan Hudson resigned their positions in June.
"This is the latest senior figure implicated in the McGuinty Liberal eHealth scandal who has been forced, finally, to resign," said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.
"The only senior eHealth figure who has not lost his job yet is Dalton McGuinty."
Hudak said his party will continue to push for a public inquiry into eHealth, as well as for answers from McGuinty about his personal involvement in the scandal.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she was worried the ongoing resignations would hamper opposition efforts to get at the truth.
"As all these people walk away from the sinking mess, you begin to wonder, are we ever going to get to the bottom of what went wrong with a view of making the change?" she said.
"It's not just a matter of what went wrong so we can put blame, but it's what went wrong so we can make sure this kind of thing never happens again."
Horwath said she hoped the departure of one the last men standing would give McGuinty an opportunity to "actually make some real changes."
The government set a target date of 2015 to get the records system fully functional, but has since conceded it could take longer.
Top officials from scandal-plagued eHealth, including chairwoman Rita Burak and Sapsford, were called before the legislature's public accounts committee in October to talk about the agency's use of outside consultants.
At that time, Burak said taxpayers deserved an apology for the scandal, which involved awarding of hundreds of millions of dollars in untendered contracts to consultants, but stopped short of actually providing one.
She also told the committee eHealth trimmed the number of consultants from 385 last spring to 286 in September, and promised that number would be reduced to 160 by spring.
Robert Devitt, interim president and CEO of eHealth Ontario, said Friday that plan remained on target, adding the two personnel changes affected Robin Tonna, vice-president of human resources, and senior vice-president of communications Dianna Allen.
"We've tried to create a more streamlined structure to reflect the economic times we're in," said Devitt.
"The more money we can free up from administrative costs, it frees up money to put toward electronic records."
Sapsford, a former chief operating officer at the Hamilton Health Sciences Corp., had said after the legislative committee he didn't see any reason why he should resign, and noted the government was looking into only one contract, valued at $1 million.
He also came under fire after it was revealed that his nearly $500,000 salary was listed under a hospital budget.
Neither Matthews nor Sapsford were available for comment Friday, but the minister thanked Sapsford in a statement for his "dedicated commitment" to improving health care.
"As deputy minister of health, he has helped make measurable progress in the speed and quality of health care available to Ontarians," said Matthews, who also credited Sapsford for helping improve access to front-line health care.
The resignation is effective Jan. 3, and there is no word yet of an interim or permanent replacement.