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More than three months after rolling out $4.5 million for online therapy services — that thousands of Manitobans have since accessed — the province says it has not signed a formal contract with the Ontario firm providing them.
The province announced in late March it was partnering with Toronto-based Morneau Shepell to launch a cognitive behavioural therapy program to help Manitobans during the pandemic. It said it would spend $4.5 million to provide the online service for up to one year.
According to a freedom of information request by the provincial NDP, "no record exists" of any tender for services or contract with Morneau Shepell.
In an email response, a government spokesman said: "The government signed a term sheet with Morneau Shepell earlier this year, and is working to finalize the contract."
He would not share terms of the agreement or say how much of the $4.5 million has been spent to date.
NDP Opposition Leader Wab Kinew said Friday the agreement lacks proper oversight.
"There’s definitely a lack of proper procedure here, with a (huge) corporation being handed millions of dollars of public money with little more than a press release attached to it," Kinew said.
Morneau Shepell employs close to 6,000 employees and works with 24,000 client organizations in 162 countries. In 2019, the annual revenue of the company, which is publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, grew by 23 per cent to $888.9 million.
"This arrangement that the province came up with pushed local practitioners out of getting the work," said Kinew.
The Tory government led by Premier Brian Pallister sole-sourced it to an out-of-province corporation, the NDP leader said. "This was never put out as an RFP or tendered as work available to local clinicians."
Had it been, Manitoba therapists could’ve come together to offer their services, Kinew said.
The province has said 80 to 90 Manitoba therapists are on Morneau Shepell’s roster. The Toronto firm is still profiting from Manitoba tax dollars with the people doing the work just getting a cut, said Kinew.
"Why are we paying (the company) an administration fee and not keeping more of the money here in Manitoba to provide services to Manitobans?" he said.
Health Minister Cameron Friesen said Thursday the company was hired because it could provide much-needed therapy right away, to everyone who needed it during the coronavirus pandemic.
"We needed to act with haste in respect of the very significant engagement that we made with Morneau Shepell to provide this online, virtual access to care for an unlimited number of Manitobans," Friesen said.
As of Thursday, 2,574 Manitobans have used the program (AbilitiCBT) that can be accessed through a smartphone, tablet or computer and doesn’t require a doctor’s referral. Clients are paired with the same therapist for the 12-week duration of an individual program.
"We’re very proud of this engagement," Friesen said Thursday at a news conference.
"We were the first province to say, ‘Listen: COVID-19 has a very dramatic, real and demonstrable effect, a measurable effect, on the lives of people,’" he said. "Then, there is the effect that’s less easy to measure — on our psyche, on our mental health — that is no less real.
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.
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