Ombudsperson to review drug researcher firings

Jay Chalke's office exempted from confidentiality agreements, NDP agrees to his independent probe into reason for dismissals

B.C. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke

B.C.’s new Ombudsperson has been given extra authority to investigate the case of eight ministry of health researchers whose work on drug effectiveness was terminated three years ago.

The B.C. government passed amendments Tuesday to allow Ombudsperson Jay Chalke to review the case that has had the government on the defensive since the abrupt dismissal of university researchers in 2012.

The researchers were assessing drugs for eligibility under the province’s Pharmacare program. The health ministry initially said a confidential database of B.C. patients who had taken various drugs had been misused, and some of the researchers appeared to have conflicts of interest.

One fired contractor committed suicide, another is suing the government for wrongful dismissal and the remainder have been paid confidential settlements and reinstated. The government has since apologized for the way the contractors were treated, but reasons for the firings and why they were reversed have not been made clear.

Chalke, a former public trustee appointed Ombudsperson this spring, said he would take the case if confidentiality agreements didn’t prevent him from reviewing documents and getting answers from those involved.

Attorney General Suzanne Anton presented changes to the Ombudsperson Act to exempt the office from confidentiality agreements for this case, and the changes passed the legislature with unanimous consent in under an hour Tuesday.

After an independent labour lawyer was unable to compel testimony from senior health ministry officials, Premier Christy Clark rejected opposition calls for an independent inquiry.

Health Minister Terry Lake referred the issue to the Ombudsperson, and NDP critics agreed to the move after changes were made to give Chalke the authority he needs.