UCP votes against independent role for chief medical officer of health

An NDP motion to make Alberta’s chief medical officer of health more independent was defeated Wednesday by UCP MLAs on a committee examining changes to the public health act.

NDP proposed motion to make Hinshaw an independent officer of the legislative assembly

Dr. Deena Hinshaw will provide her latest update on the COVID-19 pandemic at a news conference on Tuesday. (Legislative Assembly of Alberta)

An NDP motion to make Alberta's chief medical officer of health more independent was defeated Wednesday by UCP MLAs on a committee examining changes to the public health act.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, currently operates in an advisory role to cabinet.

The public never hears what her original recommendations are, making it impossible to assess how much of Hinshaw's advice was accepted by the government. 

Edmonton City Centre MLA David Shepherd, the NDP Opposition critic for health, introduced a motion to make the chief medical officer of health an independent officer of the legislative assembly, meaning she would report to all MLAs regardless of their political affiliation, not just the minister of health.  

"We've learned a lot during this pandemic," Shepherd said. "The public is demanding unfettered access. They want to hear the real advice of our health professionals.

"In something as important as a public health emergency, I think the public deserves to hear public health advice without having to be concerned about the possibility of political filtering."

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The select special public health act review committee has seven UCP MLAs and four members of the NDP opposition. 

Miranda Rosin, the UCP MLA for Banff-Kananaskis, was the only government member to speak to Shepherd's motion. The others remained silent, even though they joined Rosin in defeating the motion in a 7-4 vote. 

In her testimony to the committee on Aug. 27, Hinshaw said there were advantages and disadvantages to the different ways a chief medical officer of health could perform their role. 

"I would feel comfortable that I could work within whatever framework the government chose to set out," she said. "This particular framework: I have been comfortable working within it."

Rosin referred to those comments when justifying her decision to vote against Shepherd's motion, saying Hinshaw was happy with the current reporting arrangement.

"The irony here is laughable," Rosin said. "We've sat here for almost eight hours now and listened to the members of the opposition tell us how we needed to listen to Dr. Deena Hinshaw more. And we didn't give her enough opportunity to speak or to share her opinion. 

"Yet when she does share her opinion, apparently they have absolutely no desire to listen to it or to take that advice."

Edmonton South NDP MLA Thomas Dang said it isn't surprising Hinshaw said she was fine reporting to the minister of health. 

In a submission to the committee, the minister of health said there was no need for an independent officer. Hinshaw's answer reflected that position, Dang said, because she can't disagree publicly without having to tender her resignation.

"We will never know what goes on behind closed doors," Dang said. 

Hinshaw's profile has increased over the last seven months thanks to her frequent public briefings on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The school reopening plan rolled out by the government raised suspicions that the UCP cabinet was not following all of her recommendations since spacing requirements in classrooms contradicted advice for people in public spaces like grocery stores and restaurants. 

"The chief medical officer of health doesn't control the education budget, doesn't control the health budget," said Edmonton Glenora MLA Sarah Hoffman, the NDP critic for education. 

"But if the officer had the independence, like we see in the children's advocate, we could see the type of advocacy that could create greater confidence in the public and in our understanding of what's being done purely from a health perspective."