Public health officers need independence, medical society says

The New Brunswick Medical Society is seeking legislative changes that would give medical officers of health more independence.

Doctors call for legislative changes to protect medical officers of health from political interference

The New Brunswick Medical Society is calling for more independence for medical officers of health in the province.

The move stems from mixed messages from the Alward government in 2012 over whether the chief medical officer of health's report on shale gas would be made public, said president Dr. Lynn Hansen.

Dr. Lynn Hansen, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, is calling for more independence for public health officers. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)
While Dr. Eilish Cleary's report about the impacts on human health was eventually released without reprisals, a clear law would avoid any confusion in the future, Hansen said during a news conference in Fredericton on Thursday.

The organization has sent a letter to all five political party leaders, asking them to support the necessary legislative changes to guarantee public health officers the freedom to speak out, she said.

The letter comes just three months ahead of the start of the provincial election campaign.

"We would like all political parties to support our position, so regardless of who is our future government, that this is a change we'd like to see," said Hansen, adding she hopes to see a promise on the issue in the campaign platforms.

Medical officers, who work for government, should have a legislatively defined responsibility to speak to their patients — all New Brunswickers, she said.

Unlike other provinces, such as Ontario and British Columbia, "our current legislation doesn’t explicitly protect public health physicians from political interference," Hansen said.

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

"Most people know medical officers of health in their emergency role, such as protecting us from pandemics or addressing infectious diseases," said Hansen.

"But in 2014, New Brunswickers are not facing cholera. Instead, we need to know about the health impacts of things that can affect our 21st-century lifestyles. Medical officers of health need the same ability to speak to the public on these issues as they have had on health crises."

Health Minister Ted Flemming says he's open to looking at the medical society's proposal, but he's "not prepared to say these officers have political pressure."

"I haven't seen any evidence of that," he said. "I've never given anybody any political pressure to do their jobs, so the suggestion of that I reject in its absolute entirety."

"All of Dr. Cleary's public exposure to the press … has had all the benchmarks of autonomy."

The Liberal Opposition's health critic Don Arseneault supports the idea of enshrining the independence of public health officers in legislation.

"The recent efforts by the Alward government to muzzle the Chief Medical Officer about her concerns over fracking is a prime example of why New Brunswick could benefit from such a policy," he said in a statement.

"We’ll be interested in learning more about the specifics of the proposal, but generally speaking, we should be seeking the same level of independence for our public health officials that other jurisdictions enjoy.”

Green Party Leader David Coon agrees.

"The chief medical officer of health must be able to operate completely free of a government's political considerations to serve the best interests of all New Brunswickers," he said.

NDP Fredericton North candidate Brian Duplessis called the move "long overdue" and said an NDP government would introduce such legislation.

"We have to get the looming shadow of political interference out of our public service. I can’t think of many areas where that is more critical than with our provincial public health officials," he said.

"It’s easy to say, 'Well, [Cleary's report] was eventually released,' but there was high risk it would not have been released and we don’t know what other reports will be done by parts of the government, agencies of the government, that will be held up."

Cleary's shale report

On Oct. 2, 2012, the Alward government would not say whether it would release the province's chief medical officer of health's report on the potential health impacts of the shale gas industry.

Officials said it was too early to commit to releasing Dr. Eilish Cleary's report, which included recommendations on how to minimize the negative effects of the industry on people's health.

The following day, government officials said at least parts of the report would be made public, but not right away.

Cleary's 82-page report was released on Oct. 15. Her recommendations included conducting a health impact assessment and monitoring the health of the population on an ongoing basis to detect adverse impacts.

She said she believes the potential risks of hydro-fracking are greater than just chemicals. Air quality, noise and vibration are among her concerns.

At the time, Cleary sidestepped questions about whether the provincial government should impose a moratorium on developing the shale gas industry.

But earlier this month, Cleary said the government should stall the development of the industry and wait for more research to be completed.

Cleary's comments followed the release of a report by 14 international experts commissioned by Environment Canada, who concluded "data about potential environmental impacts are neither sufficient nor conclusive."

Opponents of the shale gas industry have long argued the hydro-fracking process can cause water and air pollution.

Hydro-fracking is a process where exploration companies inject a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground, creating cracks in shale rock formations. That process allows companies to extract natural gas from areas that would otherwise go untapped.


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