VICTORIA – Opposition critics used their first question period of the fall legislative session Tuesday to demand accountability from the B.C. government on the firing of seven health ministry staff and contractors over alleged misuse of confidential health data in 2012.
NDP leader John Horgan reminded the government that two years after the allegations surfaced, two health researchers have been reinstated, two others were “unfired” and one, university co-op student Roderick MacIsaac, committed suicide after having his research contract terminated with only days left to go.
Health Minister Terry Lake repeatedly apologized in the legislature and acknowledged that the handling of some aspects of the case was “heavy-handed.” Lake referred to an independent investigation announced last week by the public service to review the way employees and contractors were treated, but he also defended the need to act on the information breach.
Letters were sent out to 38,000 B.C. residents in early 2013, notifying them that their confidential health information was copied to a data stick and shared without authorization. There were no names in the data, but it included personal health numbers, gender, date of birth, postal codes and information from a Statistics Canada health survey on mental and physical health and use of health services.
Horgan replied that “not one scrap of data left the Ministry of Health, and the minister knows that.” He and other opposition MLAs demanded Lake clear the air about an alleged police investigation into the data handling, since a year after the allegations surfaced, the RCMP had still not received a report from the government.
The ministry staff and research contractors were using patient data for research related to which drugs were approved for use under B.C.’s Pharmacare program. An investigation by B.C.’s privacy commissioner concluded that the data were shared with unauthorized people, apparently “to work around the lengthy approval process.”
NDP health critic Judy Darcy said the government’s decision to send MacIsaac’s family a cheque for the final days of his employment, with no other communication, was unacceptable.
“Heavy-handed would be an understatement,” Darcy said. “We have witnessed the actions of a government that did its level best to avoid responsibility for ruining eight people’s lives until the heartfelt pleadings of Linda Kayfish, Roderick MacIsaac’s brave sister, shamed this government into action.”