Saint John doctor viewed Ed Doherty as an 'ally' in DNA sequencing fight

Politics, legal threats, disagreements over strategy and a touch of quiet diplomacy all played a role in the endgame of last year’s fight over DNA sequencing equipment in Saint John, CBC News has learned.

Emails obtained by CBC News show Liberal Ed Doherty and Dr. John Dornan communicated during controversy

Health Minister Victor Boudreau, Liberal cabinet minister Ed Doherty and Dr. John Dornan were all involved in a form of quiet diplomacy in the political controversy over the purcahse of a DNA sequencing machine in Saint John. (CBC, Government of New Brunswick, CBC)

Politics, legal threats, disagreements over strategy and a touch of quiet diplomacy all played a role in the endgame of last year's fight over DNA sequencing equipment in Saint John, CBC News has learned.

Documents released under the Right to Information Act show that while a key medical leader fretted over high-profile pressure tactics, he quietly recruited a Liberal cabinet minister to lobby on the hospital's behalf.

"I spoke with Dr. [Ed] Doherty just now and he is on side [with us]," Dr. John Dornan, the chief of medical staff at the Saint John Regional Hospital, wrote in an email to colleagues and Horizon Health Authority officials on June 11.

It's a reference to Ed Doherty, a Saint John Liberal MLA and cabinet minister who, as an ophthalmologist, has close ties to doctors in the city.

A week earlier, the Gallant government's veto of new DNA sequencing equipment for the Saint John hospital, the subject of a community fundraising campaign, became public.

Officials at the hospital were scrambling to persuade Liberal Health Minister Victor Boudreau to change his mind and Dornan felt Doherty, the minister of government services, might help sway him.

"He will speak with MoH [Minister of Health] this afternoon on clinical need to have program here," Dornan wrote of Doherty.

Boudreau had vetoed the purchase of the $900,000 equipment by the Saint John Regional Hospital Foundation because he said it duplicated similar equipment at the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute in Moncton, equipment that already was under-used.

Doherty was not available for an interview about whether his role helped reverse the Liberal decision, but Dornan told CBC News the minister was a key ally.

CBC reporter Jacques Poitras talks about the battle over genetic testing equipment in the province. 11:43

"He took our information at face value, had appropriate questions and worked with the people at Vitalité and with Minister Boudreau and others," he said.

Dornan and other doctors were looking for ways to persuade Boudreau the province needed two sets of equipment, one at ACRI in Moncton and one in Saint John.

The Liberal government was in crisis mode over the decision, which was seen as a slap in the face to Saint John.

Dornan's key role

New documents obtained by CBC News show how Horizon Health officials and Saint John Regional Hospital staff scrambled to justify the purchase of DNA sequencing equipment in 2014 and 2015. (CBC)
Throughout the drama, Dornan, a 56-year-old endocrinologist originally from Corner Brook, N.L., played a key role.

"I think of our government as my employer, who has the public interest at heart," Dornan said in an interview last Friday.

"So my feeling was when people who make decisions have the right information, they will make the right decision."

It was not his first time on the hotseat: the avid runner and amateur beekeeper also stick-handled a 2008-2009 crisis at the Saint John Regional's emergency room, serving as acting ER head during an exodus by several doctors.

In a June 15 interview with CBC, Dornan was diplomatic and deferential toward the minister of health.

"We respect that at the end of the day, he makes decisions," Dornan said.

"I think the minister can go a little further in terms of soliciting academic and clinical and expert advice."

He applied the same soft touch after Boudreau agreed to visit the hospital and meet the medical staff.

In a June 9 email, Dornan urged colleagues to "minimize public debate" ahead of the visit and said he was worried the foundation's aggressive public campaign "could backfire."

Dornan told CBC last week he wrote that because he was worried the foundation's approach might mean "we could be seen as too much interested just in what's happening in Saint John and not provincially."

He says the foundation adjusted its message and helped make the case.

The same day Dornan was fretting about the foundation, he also sent a long and polite email directly to Boudreau, pledging that Horizon could "work more closely and collaboratively" with Vitalité, which had the ACRI equipment at the Dr. Georges-L. Dumont University Health Centre in Moncton.

Lawyer's letter defends Ouellette's reputation

Dr. Rodney Ouellette, the director of the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute, operated a DNA sequencing machine in Moncton. (CBC)
Five days later, Dornan found a letter from a lawyer in his inbox.  

In the legislature, PC MLAs were questioning the motives of Dr. Rodney Ouellette, the chief executive officer of the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute, who was jockeying to do more tests for Horizon doctors.

In mid-June, Christian Michaud, Ouellette's lawyer, sent a letter to Dornan and another Horizon physician, Dr. Terrance Comeau.

The letter was not released to CBC News, but it suggested any personal attacks on Ouellette might be met by a lawsuit.

Dornan responded by email, saying he agreed and adding, "You will note that any reference to Dr. Ouellette by myself has been nothing but respectful."

But Comeau forwarded the letter to Horizon Health CEO John McGarry, saying he found it "offensive and threatening … [I] seek your guidance in this increasing chaotic situation. Does Horizon have a legal team that needs to be involved at this point?"

Less than three hours after receiving the lawyer's letter, Dornan sent a new email to Boudreau.

"As naive as I am, I try to put myself in your shoes. How can everyone be kept happy while managing health care responsibly? What solution would allow a sequencer in SJ while supporting Dr. Ouellette's business plan?"

He proposed a deal to have Saint John doctors steer samples from outside Saint John to ACRI.

"All parties agree this is a growing need," he wrote.

"We should help ACRI get to their minimum 1,300 specimens per year."

Dornan says now that he was "nervous that maybe [Boudreau] didn't get all the information he needed" and it was part of his job to inform the minister.

"All that resulted in the right people getting the right information to make the right decision."

Two days later, Gallant announced he was reversing Boudreau's veto and would allow the foundation to buy the equipment for Saint John.

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.


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