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Drug bill includes personal information grab: advocate

A bill introduced to the British Columbia legislature as a way to lower the price of generic drugs also allows the government to hide its own records while "grabbing" people's personal information, an information and privacy advocate said.

"We're concerned in terms of transparency as well as private information," said Vincent Gogolek, the executive director of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

Health Minister Michael de Jong last week introduced Bill 35, the Pharmaceutical Services Act, saying it would bring the price B.C. pays for generic drugs in line with Ontario.

The bill also restricts the information that can be released about what the province pays for drugs, Gogolek pointed out. Section 7 says that despite the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act "or any other enactment that would require the disclosure of information," the minister may refuse to make public information about the listing of a drug or the authorization of payments for it.

Gogolek said the section appears to give the minister power to keep information secret, even from the Auditor General. "How far does it go? That's a problem, at least as we see it."

At the same time, the act makes it possible for the province to collect and share individuals' personal information, he said. Section 22 says the minister may collect information under the act "for a prescribed purpose."

"That could be anything," said Gogolek.

It's odd that the new rules on data sharing are included in a bill on generic drug pricing, he said. "This is completely artificial," he said. "Why is this stuff in the bill and where did it come from? ... Why the big data grab?"

Introducing the bill de Jong said it provides a legislative framework that will replace the PharmaCare program which had been previously governed through government policies. During debate of the bill, former health minister Colin Hansen said it will allow greater sharing of data, with personal information removed, for research purposes.

"What they ignore is this is our information," said Gogolek. "This law is being set up to make it their information. We should be the one's deciding how it's disposed of."

Prescribing data may include information people don't want shared, such as that they are taking insulin or antiretroviral drugs, or that they have an illness that requires those treatments, he said.

Gogolek said former health minister Kevin Falcon had said in 2010 that prescribing information would be kept under e-health databases "because these are the databases that have the intensely private personal information that requires the highest level of security, very appropriately."

Gogolek asked, "What changed their minds in the last two years?"

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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