BALDREY: Questions linger in health ministry’s shabby affair

VICTORIA — As cases involving government misconduct go, the one concerning the firing of seven B.C. health ministry employees is a particularly shabby one. Reputations were besmirched, careers were ruined and, in a particularly tragic part of this tale, one employee committed suicide after his life-long work was destroyed.

And yet, not a shred of evidence has ever surfaced to support what the B.C. government did to these people. Vague allegations of improper sharing of health care data and conflict of interest were made, but never proven.

Indeed, the government has essentially acknowledged it made a colossal error in this matter by the fact that two of the employees they excoriated were invited back to work, while a third received an out-of-court settlement and a de facto apology.

And last Friday (otherwise known as "take out the trash day" around the legislature), the government finally issued an apology to the family of Rod MacIsaac, who took his own life a few months after being terminated.

When the firings were first announced in September, 2012, then-Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said she was "shocked" and "deeply troubled and disturbed" by what had apparently been discovered, but since then, the government has been backpedaling from its initial actions.

However, for all that retreating, the government went months without answering questions about its actions. An investigation by Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham found that improper breaches of information had indeed occurred, but not for nefarious reasons or personal gain and, in fact, resulted more from unclear guidelines.

To his credit, Health Minister Terry Lake (who inherited this mess from his predecessor) has now launched an internal review of the whole affair and has promised to make its findings public.

A side issue in this messy affair is that valuable drug research was lost or derailed, at a time when that kind of elite-level research is needed more than ever before. University of Victoria researchers are still waiting to receive data from the health ministry that was suspended two years ago.

This case saw the government, yet again, take a bludgeon to the renown UBC-based

Therapeutics Initiative, an independent watchdog when it comes to approval of pharmaceutical drugs for coverage under Pharmacare.

But the human tragedy aspect of this affair outweighs the negative impact it had on drug research.

MacIsaac was a doctoral student who was doing research on smoking cessation drugs and, at the time of his firing, was excitedly working toward his PhD.

Instead, he was effectively bullied out of employment and stripped of the materials he was using to complete his doctorate. According to his sister, Lynda Kayfish, he was confronted by three government investigators in such a belligerent fashion that he suffered severe physical distress in that job-ending "interview."

A few months after losing his contract, and perhaps realizing his bid for that PhD was now over, he ended his own life through carbon monoxide poisoning in his Saanich apartment.

MacIsaac’s sister paid a tearful visit to the legislature last week, asking that the government simply show some human decency and apologize, and explain itself.

The apology has now been issued but there are still many unanswered questions.

A number of key individuals who were involved in this affair – notably MacDiarmid and former deputy health minister Graham Whitmarsh – have left government, but they should be compelled to provide some answers.

The internal inquiry is being handled by top-notch labour lawyer Marcia McNeil, so there is reason to be confident that most, if not all, outstanding questions will be answered. Her report will no doubt prevent any further abuses of process from occurring.

Nevertheless, it appears it took Kayfish’s dramatic news conference to force the government’s hand here. The only contact the government had made with her since her brother’s death was sending her a cheque for $483, to cover the last three days of MacIsaac’s contract.

Without her holding that news conference (and kudos to the NDP Opposition for arranging it), it seems likely the shroud of secrecy would have continued indefinitely, and MacIsaac’s family would continue to be ignored.

All in all, a shabby affair, one that needs a lot of explaining.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

Email Keith.Baldrey@globalnews

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