An appearance before the P.E.I. legislature's health committee by former Health P.E.I. CEO Dr. Michael Gardam led to a tense exchange with Progressive Conservative MLA Steven Myers on Wednesday.
This is Gardam's last week at Health P.E.I., after his time as CEO ended on Dec. 31 and acting CEO Corinne Rowswell took over. Last July he said he intended to stay on at the agency until March of this year to ensure a smooth transition, but today said he'll spend the next two months using up vacation time banked during the COVID pandemic.
Much of Gardam's testimony on Wednesday, which went on for almost three hours, focused on his concerns about planning for the new medical school at UPEI.
Stakeholders in the province's medical school are too divided, he said, and they need to pull together to avoid serious damage to the health-care system.
"Health P.E.I. can exist without a medical school; a medical school cannot exist without Health P.E.I.," Gardam told the MLAs on the committee.
"If we're going to do this, how do we do it so that we don't rip the guts out of the health care system at the same time?"
Steven Myers, who's the minister of Environment, Energy and Climate Action as well as the MLA from Georgetown-Pownal, accused Dr. Michael Gardam of saying different things to different groups of people about health care on the Island. (P.E.I. Legislative Assembly feed)
Gardam said his message has been consistent since the medical school was announced. He believes a medical school could have potential benefits for P.E.I., but if it is not done properly it could do more harm than good.
'It's my word against yours'
However, Myers took issue with Gardam, saying he had been inconsistent in his comments on topics including the medical school, and accused him of regularly changing his message depending on his audience.
He pointed to public statements Gardam made that the intensive care unit at Prince County Hospital in Summerside should stay open. Myers, who is P.E.I.'s environment minister, said Gardam had told him and other cabinet ministers during a closed meeting that it should be shut down.
That led to a tense exchange between the two men.
Gardam: "What I said about that ICU was it could not stay open if we don't have the people, and that my preference has always been that it stay open… but it cannot stay open now."
Myers: "That's not true."
Gardam: "Show me the minutes."
Myers: "I'm putting my reputation on the line against yours. I'm telling you."
Gardam: "It's your word against mine. I have been very …"
Myers: "I have never once lied to the public."
Gardam: "...Perhaps you misheard me."
Myers: "No, I don't think I did."
Premier's office responds
Earlier in the meeting, Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly asked Gardam if he'd ever received a call from the premier's office telling him to "stand in line" or "get on board" with government policies or direction.
Gardam said he had, predominantly with regard to the medical school.
"I've struggled with that, because I see the risk, potentially, to the health-care system in the way that we're doing this," Gardam responded. "That's when I decided, you know, it's my time to go."
Asked to respond to that, a spokesperson for Premier Dennis King told CBC News it was Gardam's job to carry out the wishes of his ultimate employer, and any conversations would have been conducted with that in mind.
A photo from Oct. 8, 2021, when plans for a new UPEI Faculty of Medicine were announced in Charlottetown. Premier Dennis King is shown second from the left. (UPEI website)
"Government made the policy decision to support UPEI in the development of a medical school. That decision was made with input from stakeholders including Health P.E.I.," the spokesperson wrote. "The government sets public policy; Health P.E.I. then implements that policy. It's the CEO's job to lead the implementation of government policy."
He added: "The elected leader of the government being the premier, [he] has — and requires — the ability to speak with and deal with the CEO of Health P.E.I. (or any other CEO of a Crown corporation, for that matter) regarding the delivery of health services in this province. It would be irresponsible if that wasn't the case; and I'm confident Islanders would be upset if they didn't think the premier was actively involved in trying to improve health-care delivery in P.E.I."
During his appearance Wednesday, Gardam reiterated a belief he has expressed before that in its rush to create a medical school, the province is losing sight of the complicated interconnections between the school and the medical system. He said the P.E.I. government needs to pay more attention to concerns expressed by the province's doctors.
UPEI has twice moved back the proposed opening date for its medical school. It's now set to take in its first class of 20 students in 2025. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)
And he said the process of the medical school pulling resources away from Health P.E.I. has already begun — in particular, human resources.
They offer 30 per cent more money than we can. It's very easy to recruit from us. — Dr. Michael Gardam
"They offer 30 per cent more money than we can. It's very easy to recruit from us," he said.
"They've recruited our director of surgical services, they've recruited one of our emergency room doctors. These are people that no longer do work with Health P.E.I."
'I feel like I'm in competition with UPEI'
At the root of the problem, said Gardam, is that the province's political leaders, Health P.E.I., and UPEI are not working together on the school. For the school to be a success, he said, everyone has to work together to prevent potential problems.
"We're not setting up a Chicken Delight franchise. We're setting up a medical school," he said.
"I feel like I'm in competition with UPEI. I should not be in competition. I should be working collaboratively with UPEI to pull this off. The reality is there's nobody at UPEI who has the expertise in medicine."
When the school was announced, it was scheduled to open this coming September. That has since been put back a year, with the first students expected to start taking classes in September 2025.
'Helping us drown slower'
On another topic he raised Wednesday, Gardam said wait times for medical imaging in the province are "appalling," largely because the province can't recruit the staff necessary to run MRI machines around the clock.
Magnetic resonance imaging machines, or MRIs, allow doctors to view three-D images of organs, bones, muscles and blood vessels. Gardam told MLAs that ideally, P.E.I.'s machines would be running around the clock to meet the demand. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)
He warned that if the province can't get better at health-care recruitment, and if the population continues to grow at the current rate, "I think we're really close to getting in some real trouble here... I'm worried these things are gonna collapse."
Asked what had been achieved during his tenure as CEO to improve health-care access, he said that if anything, access is worse than when he came in.
"I think we've made Health P.E.I. more efficient. So it would have been even worse... It's helping us drown slower. We haven't been able to make the big changes."