Researchers Say Ministry Downplaying Damage Done by Health Firings

Update on ministry response gives generally good grades, notes disagreement on harm to drug research.

By Andrew MacLeod 26 Oct 2017 |

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

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Health Minister Adrian Dix says researchers’ concerns will be reviewed. Photo: BC Legislature.

The British Columbia health ministry met its obligation to review the damage the 2012 firings did to the government’s drug research programs, even if some researchers think that review was insufficient.

That’s the assessment from Thomas Cromwell, the retired judge the provincial government hired to oversee the implementation of the recommendations Ombudsperson Jay Chalke made in Misfire: The 2012 Ministry of Health Employment Terminations and Related Matters.

To meet Chalke’s recommendation, the ministry produced a 22-page report titled Review and Assessment of the Termination of Evidence-based Programs in Pharmaceutical and Related Health Services.

“I am not in position to assess the accuracy of the Review in the sense of whether it correctly identifies all of the gaps,” Cromwell wrote in his first quarterly report, which covers progress up to Sept. 30. “But I am satisfied that it does what the Ombudsperson recommended to be done.”

He noted, however, that the government had shared the review with researchers and contractors who had helped develop it, and some were critical.

“I have heard from some of them that the Report does not in fact identify the most serious gaps and that the Report does not reflect the advice provided by some of the people most familiar with the impact of these events on evidence-based research in the Ministry.”

In its review, the ministry had concluded: “In analyzing the gaps, it is clear that two axioms co-existed: at the same time that people, programs and initiatives were dramatically and negatively impacted, other significant initiatives and collaborations with researchers were beginning and other strong Ministry evidence development processes continued. One did not cancel out the other.”

Cromwell wrote that it was beyond his terms of reference and “professional competence” to evaluate the substance of the report or the criticism. “I urge the Ministry to continue to engage with those individuals to the extent that they are willing to assist,” he wrote.

Asked about Cromwell’s comments, Health Minister Adrian Dix said, “We’ll look at that. The purpose of the gap analysis was to take a broad look at the issues. In that, the ministry had meetings with a number of people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s comprehensive.”

The ministry will consider the comments researchers made to Cromwell, said Dix, who in opposition was a strong critic of how the government handled the 2012 firings.

“What I think he was saying is some people had contacted him who’d been involved and felt that their view wasn’t adequately represented in the report, and that’s fair enough,” he said. “I’ll take a look at that as well, I know the ministry will, and I’ve instructed them to.”

The wrongful firing of seven people, one of whom committed suicide a few months after being fired, resulted in five wrongful dismissal and defamation lawsuits that were settled out of court, apologies from former premier Christy Clark and the head of the public service, a union grievance process, some of the employees returning to work and two major reports.

Chalke’s 487-page report on the firings included a finding that “Several of the ministry’s initiatives that supported evidence-informed outcomes in pharmaceutical management came to an end as a result of the investigation into employees, contractors and external researchers.”

The cancelled programs had been widely regarded as useful and they were dismantled arbitrarily, the report said. “This was perceived by some as a weakening of the ministry’s commitment to evidence-informed evaluation of its pharmaceutical initiatives.”

Dix said the new government began to rebuild drug research capacity by restoring the funding and role for the Therapeutics Initiative in its September budget update. The Therapeutics Initiative is a research group at the University of B.C. that provides independent evidence-based advice on pharmaceuticals. “It was one of the tent pole initiatives in the budget. I’m very proud of it and I think it’s the start of what’s going to be an important process to support evidence-based review,” he said.

Overall, Cromwell found “that for the vast majority of the recommendations that were to be implemented by the end of September, implementation has been achieved fully and on time,” with a few exceptions.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, BC Politics

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