Wrongly Fired Health Workers Sign New Demand for 'Thorough' Inquiry

Probe must be fully independent, letter states.

By Andrew MacLeod 24 Jun 2015 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, April 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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Roderick MacIsaac committed suicide after being fired. Premier has apologized, but who ordered firing and why still not known.

Eight people affected by the over-reaching firings from the British Columbia health ministry in 2012 have signed an open letter asking Health Minister Terry Lake to launch an inquiry into what went wrong and why.

"We believe that the strength of democracy depends on unbiased evidence, which depends upon independent inquiry," says the June 24 letter. "We call on the minister to commission a thorough and independent inquiry."

While some of the people signing the letter have previously requested a public inquiry, several had not. This is the first time they've spoken on the matter with one voice. 

In September 2012, the health ministry announced allegations related to data management, contracts and conflicts of interest that would lead to seven firings and the freezing of several drug research contracts. Work that stopped as a result included assessments of Alzheimer's drugs and of Premier Christy Clark's pet anti-smoking program.

The government has since reinstated two of the people who were fired, settled out of court in three wrongful dismissal and defamation lawsuits, and Clark has apologized for some of the firings and for misleading the public.

A review by lawyer Marcia McNeil of what went wrong with the firings was released in December 2014, but McNeil wrote that she could not answer the basic questions of who made the decision to fire the workers or why.

The NDP opposition and others have for several months called for an independent public inquiry led by someone with the power to subpoena witnesses and compel testimony under oath.

Signing the June 24 letter to Lake and adding weight to the call for an independent inquiry are six people fired from the ministry in 2012: Ramsay Hamdi, Robert Hart, Malcolm Maclure, Ron Mattson, David Scott and Rebecca Warburton. William Warburton, a researcher who had a $1-a-year contract that gave him access to health ministry data, also signed the letter.

So did Linda Kayfish, the sister of Roderick MacIsaac who a few months after being fired from his co-op job committed suicide.

Evidence needed

"We applaud the Minister of Health for considering mechanisms to get to the bottom of the 2012 Ministry of Health firings," the letter said. "This is consistent with the Ministry of Health's long-standing, growing commitment to evidence-based decision-making. Our work, as well as that of many others in related programs that was stopped in 2012, was directly in support of evidence-based policy making."

Any inquiry needs to be fully independent and not conducted by the auditor general, which at one point was involved in the investigation that led to the firings, or any other part of the government, it said.

"The inquiry should seek to understand, and to remedy, how a painstakingly built program to bring evidence to prescribing could be undone so quickly and, based on the government's own public statements, mistakenly," the authors wrote.

"It should recommend how to restore public confidence that the government is fully engaged in ensuring the safety and effectiveness of prescription medicines. It should provide the public service with reassurance that evidence will be the basis for public policy and for employment practices. We support an inquiry that determines its own initial and emergent scope and terms of reference."

The inquiry needs to have the power to subpoena both people and documents, retrieve deleted documents and take statements under oath, they said. It may also be necessary for the government to release some of the people who have already settled lawsuits related to the firings from conditions that require them to keep certain information confidential.

"The inquiry should have its own substantial budget that must provide for payment of legal costs for anyone who has a legitimate interest in both the process and the outcome of the inquiry," the letter said, noting the government has already spent $5 million on the 2012 investigation and its aftermath.

"Consider, however, that the long-run savings to government from redoubling its commitment to evidence-based decision-making will undoubtedly far exceed the budget of the inquiry and make a major contribution to evidence-based prescribing benefiting both public health and the public purse," it said.

The Therapeutics Initiative at the University of British Columbia, whose work was facilitated by some of the people who were fired, has saved the public more than $100 million over the past 20 years and continues to save more than $5 million a year, it said.

Politicians not involved, says Clark

Lake was unavailable for an interview, but has previously said he's reluctant to call a public inquiry since there are still two lawsuits before the courts that are related to the firings and due to privacy concerns.

Premier Clark told reporters June 23 that she's looking for ways to share more information with the public about what happened. "I have always wanted to make sure there is as much information disclosed as possible, to get the information out there so that people can see it," she said.

"There have been some legal and privacy issues that have made it really hard for us to do that, so what I'm doing now is looking at how we can share as much information, disclose as much information as absolutely legally allowed and make sure we really come up with some answers in a very timely and cost-effective way," Clark said.

She said the decisions about the firings were made by officials working in the civil service, not by politicians. "Politicians don't get involved in hiring and firing other civil servants," Clark said.

And Mike de Jong, the government house leader and finance minister, told reporters an inquiry would be expensive and unnecessary. He asked, "What is the question that is to be answered by an inquiry, that generally will require spending millions upon millions of dollars?"

De Jong was the health minister while the original investigation that led to the firings was underway. Margaret MacDiarmid publicly announced the investigation a day after taking over from him.

Unmask who fired employees and why: Horgan

It's stunning that at this point de Jong doesn't know what the question for an inquiry would be, said NDP leader John Horgan. "That staggers me."

The inquiry would aim to answer the questions McNeil couldn't, who fired the employees and why, Horgan said in a phone interview.

The inquiry needn't be expensive as it would be confined to a handful of individuals who were involved in the investigation and decisions, he added. There are people who know what happened who need to fess up and who could do so in a forum where they are protected from the government, he said.

"It's clear protection is needed from a vindictive government that's already treated employees so shabbily," he said.

Many people, including the former health deputy minister who signed the dismissal letters, Graham Whitmarsh, agree an independent inquiry is needed, said Horgan. "The only people who don't are those who have something to cover up, and that's the BC Liberals."  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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