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Fired Health Workers Express Hopes for Truth to Emerge in Ombuds’ Report

Though some are doubtful: ‘I don’t believe those responsible will pay a price for their actions.’

Andrew MacLeod 6 Apr

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, 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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Roderick MacIsaac took his life after health ministry fired him with others over allegations never proven and no longer pursued.

With Ombudsperson Jay Chalke set to release his report Thursday morning on the botched 2012 British Columbia health ministry firings, some of the people affected hope he has gotten to the bottom of what went wrong.

“I am cautiously hopeful that we will find out what happened and see recommendations that would both restore drug safety and effectiveness research and bring justice to Roderick MacIsaac and all others who were harmed,” said Rebecca Warburton.

In 2012, Warburton was the co-director of research and evidence development in the ministry’s pharmaceutical services division before she was fired. Her wrongful dismissal and defamation lawsuit against the government was settled out of court in 2015, and she and her husband Bill Warburton received a $260,000 cash settlement.

Rebecca Warburton was among seven people fired from the ministry over what officials said at the time were breaches in data management, contracting and possible conflicts of interest serious enough that the government had asked the RCMP to investigate.

Her husband had a $1-a-year contract cancelled that had given him access to government data. An estimated 50 people in the ministry and wider research community were affected by the investigation, suspensions and terminations.

Government officials, including Premier Christy Clark, have since admitted there were serious problems with the process that led to the firings, and it has become clear there was never an RCMP investigation because the government never supplied enough evidence to warrant one.

Some employees have returned to work, five lawsuits were settled out of court and one of those fired, Roderick MacIsaac, committed suicide.

“Nothing that comes from [Chalke’s] report will bring back Roderick or make up for the two years of hell I and my colleagues went through after our firings,” said Ron Mattson, who had been a special projects manager working on drug intelligence in the PharmaCare branch.

His out of court settlement in 2014 included a public expression of regret from the government.

“I don’t believe those responsible will pay a price for their actions,” Mattson said Wednesday. “They have worked the past five years, have received significant increases to their salaries, enhanced their pensions and likely will get a golden handshake if they are forced out of government.”

The provincial vote scheduled for May 9 provides a better opportunity to send a message to those responsible, he said. “The only way there will be justice for Roderick is if the Liberals are defeated during the upcoming election.”

Bill Warburton said the ombudsperson’s investigation team was polite, thorough, impartial and professional, unlike the group that conducted the investigation inside the ministry. “I hope that the report will make a serious effort to follow the money,” he said. “In whose financial interest was it to fire all of the drug safety and effectiveness researchers in B.C.?”

He said he hopes the report includes recommendations to get important research back on track, like the work he had been doing that showed some widely prescribed antipsychotic drugs increased mortality. He calculated some 60,000 people a year would die prematurely due to taking the drugs.

Health policy researcher Alan Cassels, who lost work because one of the researchers who was fired employed him, said he hopes Chalke “will have driven his inquiry as high on the food chain as it needs to go,” though he doubts he has done so.

“[I’m] expecting a few heads to roll, mostly lower level bureaucrats who excessively exercised their power to result in the firing of these health researchers,” he said.

The underlying question is who benefited from the fiasco, he said. “I can only think of the octopus of the pharmaceutical industry, and their many-tentacled surrogates... Everyone else has lost.”

The government damaged the lives of the people who were fired, left a family grieving and increased cynicism about the government’s ability to stand up to the drug industry, he said.

Adrian Dix, the NDP MLA for Vancouver-Kingsway said the key question would be whether Chalke’s report places the blame on low-level bureaucrats or people higher up in the government who made decisions.

“This was government misconduct at the highest level,” Dix said. “Hopefully the researchers and their families who suffered the consequences of it will get some measure of justice.”

Reporters and some of the people affected will receive copies of the report at 10 a.m. on the understanding they won’t say anything publicly about it until Chalke begins his news conference at 11 a.m.

A previous investigation by Victoria labour lawyer Marcia McNeil failed to answer key questions about who ordered the firings and why.  [Tyee]

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