The B.C. Ministry of Health's decision to suspend drug research projects in response to allegations of improprieties has produced a side effect: the research halted may have been contrary to the interests of large drug companies.
On Sept. 5, newly appointed Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid announced the RCMP had been asked to investigate allegations that had already led to the termination of four ministry employees and the suspension of three others. Those allegations haven't been made specific to the public, beyond that they have to do with potential conflicts of interest, contracting and responsible data management.
"I'm profoundly disappointed to be in this position talking to you about this issue," MacDiarmid said. "It's disturbing to me and it will be disturbing to anyone who hears about it. A very concerning set of circumstances."
Meanwhile a counter-narrative is emerging that suggests the firings and the clampdown on drug research is an over response that mainly serves the pharmaceutical industry's interests.
Two contractors have had their contracts and data access suspended, and the ministry has involved the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria, the auditor general, the information and privacy commissioner and other agencies in the investigation.
Some of the allegations include "people that are involved have relationships with others that would put them into conflict that wasn't declared," MacDiarmid said. Also, there are clear rules for how the ministry's health data can be shared, but "We believe those rules, regulations and legislation have not been followed," she said.
Town councillor terminated
MacDiarmid said she could not, however, name the people involved or provide any details of what they are alleged to have done.
Nor could she say specifically what research people were doing, though she allowed the investigation "may have an impact" on the approval of PharmaCare funding for drugs being considered as part of the Alzheimer's Drug Therapy Initiative.
"At this point I can't say whether it will or not, but we have had to suspend certain kinds of research," she said. "I'm not aware of which particular drugs or which particular studies have been suspended. We can get back to you about that."
A day after MacDiarmid's press conference, a ministry spokesperson said no more information could be provided on what drugs or research projects were affected since they are part of the investigation.
The names of the fired and suspended employees are, however, widely known within the ministry and in at least some cases, managers announced the names of those involved to the people's colleagues.
The Tyee has confirmed the fired people include Ron Mattson, a special projects manager who worked on drug intelligence in the PharmaCare branch.
Mattson also happens to be a View Royal city councillor. While there appears to be no connection to Mattson's municipal role, MacDiarmid seems to have been incorrect when she said during the press conference, "There have been no elected officials involved in this in any way at any level of government."
Drug research threatened
Also fired were Ramsay Hamdi, a senior economist in the utilization health care and risk management branch and David Scott, a senior researcher in the analysis branch. The fourth termination was of a co-op student said to be just three days away from the end of his work term.
The government has also suspended without pay Bob Hart, the director of data access, research and stewardship, Malcolm Maclure, a researcher with ties to UBC and UVic, and Rebecca Warburton, a co-director of research and evidence development in the pharmaceutical services division.
None of the people contacted agreed to be interviewed for this story, in some cases citing legal advice not to speak about it with anyone while they prepare wrongful dismissal suits against the government. One said the firing appeared to be political in nature, but declined to provide details.
The people affected had been involved in various research projects over the years that were aimed at saving the public money on drugs, work that had the flip side of cutting into drug company profits.
Mattson and Maclure, for example, were involved in the Alzheimer's Drug Therapy Initiative, project whose tasks included gathering the evidence on drugs used to treat the disease and making recommendations to the ministry on whether or not it should pay for them. A recommendation against using the drugs could be very expensive for the companies that make them.
Another project that takes physicians' prescribing patterns and compares them to what the evidence says are the best practices expired on Aug. 31. The project, aimed at both reducing unsafe prescribing and saving the government money, had assessed several drugs already and researchers planned to look at several more.
There were questions too about how the investigation may affect the Therapeutics Initiative, a UBC body that holds contracts to assess drugs for the government, and whose future was in question starting in 2008 when a government report recommended replacing it. Already the group's access to data has been cut off, along with that of other researchers.
The B.C. Government Employees' Union has reportedly said it is working on grievances on behalf of its three members who were fired.
UBC waiting for specific allegations
It's too early to know how the Health Ministry's investigation will affect the T.I. or other UBC research, said spokesperson Lucie McNeill.
Nor is it clear how the investigation affects the university in general, she said. Although a government timeline says the investigation started in March and continued through the summer, UBC just learned about it this week. "Our president was made aware 24 hours before the press conference, roughly," said McNeill.
The university takes the allegations seriously and will co-operate fully with the investigation, she said, noting UBC already has strong policies and guidelines on data management in place and that the institution is home to much world-class, leading research.
"The specific allegations, we don't know that," she said. "What I know, and what UBC knows, is what's in this (ministry) press release."
UVic spokesperson Denise Helm said it's the Health Ministry's investigation, and it would be inappropriate to comment on anything related to it while it's underway.
The investigation began with an anonymous tip to the auditor general, a government official said. The ministry has since learned who made the tip, but won't say publicly who it was, he said.
A ministry spokesperson said the tip provider does not have ties to the drug industry.