The B.C. NDP government spent $47.66 million last year on the contract with Telus for the province’s vaccine booking hotline, documents obtained under freedom of information law reveal.
The hotline, plagued by initial problems, was designed to assist the first wave of those eligible for vaccines to easily book appointments at provincial clinics and sites. The documents reveal some of the early growing pains, including some challenges in tracking the hours worked by call agents.
The first invoice, for $20.4 million, was dated May 28, 2021 and reflected the initial setup of the Telus Elements call centre platform and costs for service from Feb. 28 to April 30. The actual number of hours billed was withheld under a clause in the freedom of information law that protects proprietary information, such as unit pricing.
Telus also charged $7.71 million and $8.27 million for May and June, respectively, and $4.4 million for July. The latter invoice, dated Sept. 29, included a $1.03 million correction for May and June agent hours.
“The September audit was done to ensure good housekeeping,” according to a statement from the provincial branch of Government Communications and Public Engagement (GCPE). “The provincial call centre service was organized quickly, and some errors were detected by Telus and reported to the Ministry of Health in the recording of hours by call agents in the initial months. These were subsequently corrected, resulting in the invoice reduction.”
The system crashed almost as quickly as it launched on March 9, 2021. Only 369 senior citizens in the Vancouver Coastal Health region were able to get through the busy signals and hours-long waits to book appointments. Health Minister Adrian Dix said Telus “let us down.”
“It wasn’t just technical problems, there was insufficient staff,” Dix said at the time.
Telus CEO Darren Entwistle issued a public apology.
“We are sorry for the frustrations that British Columbians have experienced trying to connect to the call centres,” Entwistle said. “The provincial government and health authorities asked us to support them, as we have let them down. We can and will do better, and we will make this right.”
Telus responded by nearly doubling the number of phone agents to 550.
“No refund of hours worked and billed by call agents was expected or necessary,” said the GCPE statement.
Government rules call for contracts worth more than $75,000 to undergo an advertised competition, except when there is an unforeseeable emergency or if a competitive process would interfere with a ministry’s ability to protect life or health. The vaccine call centre contract was negotiated by the province’s five health authorities through the government’s telecommunications master service agreement with Telus.
Telus, Bell, Rogers and Shaw were involved in a two-year bidding process for nine separate contracts. But the BC Liberal cabinet suddenly halted tendering in June 2011 and bundled all the work into a $1 billion, 10-year package with options to extend and gave it to Telus amid protests from the other bidders. The agreement is up for renewal in 2023.
Public accounts for the year-ended March 31, 2021 show six divisions of Telus billed the province $82.4 million during the fiscal year.
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