Column: Health ministry scandal needs some transparency

It’s been three years since seven health ministry workers were wrongfully fired and we’re still waiting for a public inquiry

It’s been three years since seven health ministry workers were wrongfully fired and we’re still waiting for a public inquiry into exactly what happened, how, and why.

This travesty is an abhorrent scandal made tragic by the fact that one of the employees fired took his own life. Sadly, the PhD student was only three days away from finishing his research program and that dismissal potentially ended his ability to complete his doctorate and find work.

Back in 2012, the ministry’s review team, the “Investigation Team”, was tasked with looking into issues of employee misconduct based on allegations of contract irregularities and inappropriate research grant practices in the Research and Evidence Development section of the Pharmaceutical Services Division in the Ministry of Health.

At the time, Health Ministry staff and several contractors were part of research on the quality and safety of prescription drugs, work that was done under the auspices of the independent agency Therapeutics Initiative (a drug evaluation group at UBC). The goals of the research were to ensure quality and safety in prescription drugs, determine if those drugs were eligible for coverage under the PharmaCare program, and save tax payers money.

But in March 2102 a whistleblower alerted the Office of the Auditor General regarding contracting and research practices. The Investigation Team went into high gear investigating employee misconduct. By the fall, seven employees had been fired, setting in motion grievances and litigation and the government running in silence behind privacy claims.

Demands for investigations and, now, a public enquiry have been resisted by the government.  While the government has offered an apology for the firings, admitting that it overreacted, no one has yet been held accountable for the firings or why they really occurred.

In October 2014, Victoria lawyer Marcia McNeil was retained to conduct an independent review but even her findings released in December could not determine who was responsible, referring to that person as the “decision-maker”.

“The Investigation and decision-making process did not follow the Public Service Agency’s intended model for investigations into serious misconduct, and did not follow the best practices for engaging in such investigations in a number of important respects,” wrote McNeil.

She documented 12 findings in her report including criticism that the investigation was not conducted with an open mind, inappropriate disclosure of names, employees were not given adequate opportunity to respond to the investigators’ questions or decisions, and no one at arm’s length reviewed the findings of fact and evidence gathered. Some employees interviewed referred to the sessions as more like interrogations.

With pressure from all sides, the Clark government has conceded to a second public review by the Office of the Ombudsperson but, frustratingly, not a full independent enquiry. Needless to say, the Opposition Party is all over this one.

“After months of insisting there was nothing more to learn about the BC Liberals’ health firings scandal, Premier Christy Clark has finally conceded that the matter needs further investigation,” said NDP leader John Horgan. “The choice to ask the province’s Ombudsperson to conduct the investigation is a positive step, but the political games Premier Clark has been playing on this issue for three years lead me to believe she’s hoping the issue will disappear in obscure legislative procedures. We will not let that happen. New Democrat members on the committee, led by committee vice-chair Carole James, will fight to make sure the terms of any investigation undertaken by the Ombudsperson will cover everything that happened, not just the parts around the edges the premier is willing to let the public see.”

This mess had better be one huge lesson in accountability and transparency for the sitting government.

But I have my doubts.

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