Ombudsperson tapped to probe health firings

Government stops short of full public inquiry, NDP calls concession a 'positive step'

Health Minister Terry Lake has asked B.C’s Ombudsperson to lead an investigation into the government’s firing of eight contracted health researchers in 2012.

The province has been under fire for weeks for deflecting demands for a full public inquiry into what it has admitted was a mistake.

Criticism intensified after the release of RCMP documents that undermined government claims the researchers were under active investigation by police into a possible data security breach.

Six of the eight university researchers who were assessing pharmaceutical drugs for Pharmacare coverage have been paid settlements and reinstated, one is suing the government for wrongful dismissal and another committed suicide.

Lake said in a statement he shared the “ongoing public interest and concern” and believed new Ombudsperson Jay Chalke is the right choice to investigate further.

The surviving researchers and the family of the deceased have demanded a full public inquiry, but the premier has said that’s problematic due to privacy issues and potential high costs.

Lake said he is asking the Ombudsperson to “investigate the events leading up to the decision to terminate the employees, the decision to terminate itself, and the actions taken by government following the terminations, in addition to any other matters he may deem worthy of investigation.”

An independent review last year failed when the labour lawyer leading it said she was stymied by restrictive terms of reference.

NDP leader John Horgan called the decision to bring in the Ombudsperson a “positive step” and a major concession by the government that more investigation is needed.

He said Opposition MLAs on the committee that oversees the Ombudsperson will fight for broad terms of reference to determine who ordered the firings and why.

Chalke is a former assistant deputy minister of justice. Horgan said the NDP will also demand full disclosure of any involvement he had in the issue to ensure there’s no perception of conflict of interest.

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