Health Ministry computer system 420% over budget, five years late

A computer system spearheaded by the B.C. government to manage infectious disease outbreaks across the country is five years late, plagued by problems and 420 per cent over budget, the auditor general says.

In a blistering report released Thursday, Carol Bellringer said the government botched the Panorama project and ignored repeated warnings from front-line staff about its shortcomings.

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“Panorama has been impacted by defects from the start,” she said. “It’s inefficient to use, it’s burdensome to public health staff and it requires ongoing financial support.”

The error-prone system, purchased from IBM, has already cost the province $113 million and requires an additional $14 million a year in maintenance, she said.

“Years of delay mean that Panorama may already be outdated.”

It’s the latest in a series of flawed information-technology projects launched by the B.C. government.

In April, Bellringer found that the province never completed its beleaguered Integrated Case Management system for serving vulnerable children and adults.

“Because we’re seeing common issues across major IT projects, we’re starting a new piece of work that will look at why these challenges prevail across new IT systems,” Bellringer told reporters on Thursday.

The Panorama project began after the SARS epidemic in 2003 that killed 44 people in Canada.

An independent review recommended a “seamless” countrywide system for managing outbreaks, and B.C. was tapped to co-lead the project because of its reputation in public health and its work on the previous system, Bellringer said.

“To date, the province has spent approximately $113 million — or 420 per cent of what was budgeted at the project outset — and implementation is still not complete,” the audit states.

In addition, only four other provinces and one territory have adopted Panorama.

Bellringer blames the problems on a lack of leadership in the Ministry of Health and its “disconcerting” practice of ignoring feedback and concerns from the health authorities.

The audit recommends an independent review look at viable alternatives to Panorama.

Health Minister Terry Lake issued a statement Thursday acknowledging the “significant challenges” with Panorama, but said the province plans to stick to it.

“To effectively manage outbreaks and detect emerging disease threats, public health officials must be able to track data across the whole province,” Lake said.

“Panorama allows us to better protect the public, through information and tools we’ve never had before.

“Though it is not perfect, public-health experts across Canada agree there is no other system that can provide the comprehensive solution that Panorama provides.”

Lake said Panorama supports 82 per cent of the Canadian population in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Yukon.

He credits the system with helping contain a school measles outbreak in Ontario, “as public health staff could easily identify and follow up with non-immunized students.”

NDP critic Judy Darcy, however, said taxpayers continue to pay the price for the B.C. Liberal government’s “arrogance” and recklessness.

“I just shudder to think what we could have done in health care with that money,” she said. “You know, how many more Well Baby programs? … How much could we have shortened wait-lists if we weren’t wasting this money?”

Bellringer said B.C. accepted a Panorama system that contained almost 1,200 defects. A further 11,000 defects emerged after it was deployed in 2011, and 2,500 continue to hamper users, the audit found.

Bellringer said the ministry not only failed to control costs, but made decisions that increased costs unnecessarily.

For instance, she said, her office discovered that when IBM failed to deliver on its original contract, the Health Ministry negotiated a new deal that transferred the risk from IBM to taxpayers.

“Further, the ministry relied heavily on IBM to test the final product,” she said. “Not only is this an unusual practice, but likely contributed to the ministry accepting a deficient system with thousands of defects.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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