Ontario’s auditor general in her report released on Wednesday found that more than $200 million in provincial COVID-19 relief money went to businesses who were not eligible to receive the cash, and to date, most of it has not been paid back.
Bonnie Lysyk also noted that some businesses were given more money than they lost, and some struggling vendors were excluded altogether.
That meant $210 million went to 14,500 ineligible recipients — which the province isn’t trying to recover — and another $6 million in payments is still being investigated.
The auditor found pandemic programs for businesses, which totalled $11.2 billion, or about a third of the money allocated for provincial COVID-19 relief, lacked consultation, and eligibility criteria was poorly defined, allowing thousands of ineligible businesses to receive money.
“Given the amount of money, the absence of better controls or assessment processes is troubling,” Lysyk said in a statement.
However, in response to the report, Premier Doug Ford said on Wednesday that with the circumstances of COVID-19, some amount of funding going where it shouldn’t have was inevitable.
“I call it being dishonest – when you know you’re under a category, and you switch things up a little bit, again when you’re handing out $3.3 billion, you’re going to see things like this happen.”
But Lysyk’s report did not give the government a pass.
“Even in a crisis, systems should be in place to make sure that only eligible businesses receive taxpayer dollars, and program funds reach those who need it most,” she said in a statement.
Lysyk’s annual report covered 18 topics including COVID-19 help for businesses, management of personal protective equipment, surgery wait times, and assisted living services.
The province also paid $16 million in property tax and energy rebates to more than 3,000 ineligible businesses, and the audit also flagged issues with the Ontario Together fund, which offered help to businesses shifting their operations to help with the province’s pandemic response.
Payouts for COVID business relief funds haven’t been tracked centrally, the audit said, so the province doesn’t know how effective programs were at helping people or if the money went to the intended recipients.
Hard-hit businesses that lost revenue but didn’t have to close during the pandemic weren’t eligible to receive funds, the auditor’s report noted.
Another audit found the province didn’t have enough personal protective equipment at the start of the pandemic, but could have been prepared if it followed recommendations that came in 2006 after the SARS outbreak.
It also flagged a lack of legislated monitoring of PPE stockpiles for individual health-care providers and said the government wasn’t sufficiently transparent about how it distributed the limited supply of equipment.
An initiative established last November to manage the provincial PPE supply chain will likely help address some of the issues, Lysyk said, though it won’t be fully functional until 2023.
Wait times for outpatient surgeries have worsened during the pandemic, another audit found, with some wait times increasing by up to 57 per cent in 2020-2021. Waits vary between regions, leading to inequitable treatment, the report said.
The audit noted that outpatient surgeries can be done in public and private hospitals and independent health facilities, but there is poor co-ordination between facilities. It also found lack of oversight of outpatient surgeries and “no protection” for patients who are charged inappropriately for surgeries that are covered provincially.
Another audit noted inefficient monitoring of assisted living services, which the province spent $389 million on last year. The province gets so little information from service providers that it’s unknown if clients are receiving the care they need or if they are being neglected or abused, the audit said.