B.C. health firings referred to ombudsman despite objections

The case of the botched firings of eight health researchers in 2012 has been referred to British Columbia's Ombudsman despite objections from the fired researchers and their families, and the Opposition New Democrats.

The decision was made following a 5-4 vote by an all-party legislative committee

Ombudsperson Jay Chalke appeared Wednesday in front of a legislative committee to outline his concerns about the extent of his office's ability to investigate the health firings. (B.C. government)

The case of the botched firings of eight health researchers in 2012 has been referred to British Columbia's ombudsman despite objections from the fired researchers and their families, and the Opposition New Democrats.

At an all-party legislative committee on Wednesday, the B.C. Liberals defeated the NDP in a 5-4 vote to refer the case to Ombudsperson Jay Chalke.

The NDP and the fired researchers want a public inquiry instead, citing concerns about Chalke's lack of jurisdiction, the confidential nature of his pending investigation, and its limited scope.

However, Scott Hamilton, the Liberal MLA for Delta-North and chair of the legislative committee that made the decision, says those concerns have been taken into consideration, and Chalke now has the capacity to "go down any road he chooses" to get to the truth.

"We took all of that information ... and acted upon every single concern that was expressed by both the workers and the Ombudsperson, to the point where we in fact modified legislation just last week here in Victoria to make sure the Ombudsperson had all the tools he needed to conduct a proper review," Hamilton told On the Coast's Stephen Quinn.

Hamilton says a review by Chalke would be cheaper, quicker and more effective than a public inquiry.  

Legislation falls short

Though new legislation passed last week means an ombudsperson can now compel testimony even if potential witnesses have signed non-disclosure clauses, NDP MLA and committee member Carole James says Chalke's powers are still limited. 

The NDP members of the committee had wanted Chalke to respond to the fired researchers' concerns on Wednesday, but it didn't happen, James said.

"These people had been treated so badly, and the whole process has been so messed up, that this was our opportunity to make sure we did it properly," she said.

"Sadly, the Liberals disagreed. They did not feel that it was worth bringing the Ombudsperson back again, they felt that they wanted to move forward with their referral motion, and so we voted against that."

Ombudsman review not good enough

Chalke is bound by law to conduct any investigation sent to him by the legislature. He has previously asked the committee to make a unanimous decision about how to proceed with the probe because he did not want the issue to be politicized.

Seven of the fired health researchers, plus the sister of an eighth man who died by suicide shortly after the firings, wrote in a letter earlier this week that they don't believe the ombudsman would have the scope needed to properly investigate the matter.

"The request to this Committee from the Minister of Health is limited to '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,'" the letter says.

"Our concerns are much broader. The central matter requiring investigation is what motivated the dramatic interference with research and programs which were improving the safety and effectiveness of prescription drugs for British Columbians. This was the direct result of our unexplained terminations."

The committee will now determine the investigation's terms of reference and budget.

Listen to the interview: B.C. health firings case referred to Ombudsman

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