Public health officer backs call for greater independence

One of New Brunswick’s senior public health officials says he would welcome legislation to protect his independence from political interference.

New Brunswick Medical Society seeking law to guarantee public health officers are independent

One of New Brunswick’s senior public health officials says he would welcome legislation to protect his independence from political interference.

Public health officers are employees of the Department of Health and the New Brunswick Medical Society announced on Thursday that it is asking all political parties to commit to a law, similar to what exists in provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia, that would guarantee these doctors more independence.

Dr. Denis Allard, the province's deputy chief medical officer of health, said provincial government officials are often anxious about the timing of comments made by public health officers.
The proposed law would guarantee that public health doctors would be allowed to investigate health concerns and speak publicly about them.

Dr. Denis Allard, the deputy chief medical health officer of health, said provincial government officials can be nervous about what he says at times.

"Sometimes it's not so much an issue of pressure, but I would say occasionally it’s more with the timing of involvement,” Allard said.

“Medical officers would like to be able to, in terms of timing, advise the population as early as possible so they can take the best measures to protect their health."

Allard said those concerns are usually resolved, but he would still welcome a law that would enshrine that independence.

The medical society is raising the issue because of mixed messages from the provincial government two years ago about a report on shale gas by Dr. Eilish Cleary, the province’s chief medical officer of health.

Ministers questioned whether she should be studying the issue and whether it would be a public document. It was released publicly in the end.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said his party supports more independence for public health officials. (CBC)
In the late 1990s, a public health doctor resigned from a committee studying the health impact of an upgrade at the Irving Oil Ltd. refinery in Saint John. The doctor complained that provincial government officials blocked him from getting the information he needed.

Health Minister Ted Flemming rejected the idea that public health officials need a guarantee of independence on Thursday. He said health officers are not under any political pressure.

All other political parties were quick to back the medical society’s proposal for a law to guarantee the independence of public health officers.

“The People’s Alliance supports transparency in all parts of government and agrees with Dr. [Lynn] Hansen that physician-patient consultation should be in no way limited," said People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin in a statement on Thursday.

"Our physicians are highly trained individuals and they must be allowed to do their jobs without political interference."

Public health officers can enforce quarantines, organize vaccination programs, detain individuals, enter premises, shut down restaurants and monitor water systems.


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