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Why Ombudsperson Idea Likely Won’t Quell Health Firings Outrage

New appointee too closely tied to justice ministry, say critics.

Andrew MacLeod 25 Jun

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 took his life soon after health ministry followed botched process to fire him and others.

British Columbia Health Minister Terry Lake has floated having the province's ombudsperson investigate what went wrong with the botched 2012 firings from his ministry, an idea unlikely to satisfy the people who lost their jobs and who have requested a full public inquiry.

The government is looking for a way to release more information about the firings, Lake told reporters Thursday following a tour of a Vancouver HIV/AIDS clinic. "We're looking for that mechanism, and the office of the ombudsperson is potentially that."

But the province's new ombudsperson, lawyer Jay Chalke, is coming to the position on July 1 from the justice ministry, which itself has been closely involved in the firings and their aftermath.

"I think it's another swing and a miss for the Liberals," said John Horgan, leader of the NDP opposition. "I don't know why they don't understand arm's length, independent and open, but they clearly don't."

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 an assessment 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. Two lawsuits are ongoing.

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.

More info needed: Lake

Lake said Thursday the public wants more information and the government must find a way "of satisfying the need for more information in a cost-effective and in a timely way" that keeps politicians out of the process and avoids the potential conflicts of interest of turning it over to public servants such as the auditor general who've already been involved in the matter.

"Work is going on at the moment to look at all of those different avenues to try to satisfy the public's desire for information and at the same time doing it in a way that respects people's privacy, doesn't put people's reputations in jeopardy and yet will allow people to understand fully what happened and what we have done to make sure it doesn't happen again," said Lake.

He said he understands there are concerns about asking the auditor general's office since it has been involved in the investigation previously, but that the ombudsperson's office could look into the matter.

Earlier this week six of the people who were fired, a researcher whose contract was cancelled and the sister of Roderick MacIsaac, a co-op student who committed suicide a few months after being fired, sent an open letter to Lake requesting "a thorough and independent inquiry."

Someone connected to the eight who signed the letter said none would comment on the possibility of having the ombudsperson involved.

Their letter had 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."

Any inquiry should be free to set it's own scope, subpoena people and documents, take statements under oath, and cover the legal costs for people participating, they said. "It should recommend how to restore public confidence that the government is fully engaged in ensuring the safety and effectiveness of prescription medicines."

It is unclear whether asking the ombudsperson to review the matter would fit that vision.

Ombudsperson worked in justice ministry

Chalke's current job, where he's worked since 2011, is as an assistant deputy minister in the justice services branch of the ministry of justice. While there his boss was deputy Attorney General Richard Fyfe, who at times has represented the government in the aftermath of the firings, including in letters to former health deputy minister Graham Whitmarsh and NDP MLA Adrian Dix.

Justice ministry lawyers were also involved in writing the termination letters to the people who were fired and in providing advice to government officials before the firings.

The NDP supported Chalke's appointment as ombudsperson, but not to investigate the colleagues he's worked closely with in the justice ministry, said the NDP's Horgan. "It's a difficult position to put him into in the first week on the job."

The government should follow the clear path the people who were fired set out in their letter and appoint someone independent to conduct a public inquiry, Horgan said.

There may also be concerns among those fired that the ombudsperson's office generally tries to collaborate to solve problems and may not have the skills to cross examine Premier Clark or senior officials.

Nor are they likely to be satisfied with a review aimed at just making more information available, as Lake suggests, when what they've asked for is a process that allows an investigator the scope to decide what outstanding questions are important and to pursue answers.  [Tyee]

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