Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. officials cagey on source of health-care system disruption

Newfoundland and Labrador officials are refusing to reveal information about a health-care system failure that has already led to the cancellation of thousands of appointments and procedures, and doesn't have an end in sight.

RCMP has launched a criminal investigation

Siobhan Coady spars with reporters over cyberattack

1 year ago
Duration 2:07
Deputy N.L. premier refuses to give details about a cyberattack against the province's health-care system.

Newfoundland and Labrador officials are refusing to reveal information about a health-care system failure that has already led to the cancellation of thousands of appointments and procedures, and doesn't have an end in sight.

Sources have told CBC News that the computer network failure is due to a ransomware attack, a type of cybersecurity breach in which hackers take control of a system and let go only once a ransom has been paid.

During question period and speaking with reporters afterward on Tuesday, Deputy Premier Siobhan Coady repeatedly refused to confirm that a cyberattack had taken place at all, despite the fact that the government has brought in "cybersecurity experts" to help and that the RCMP has opened an investigation into the matter.

"This is still unfolding and we're working with the RCMP," Coady said.

Coady refused to confirm if the problems are due to a ransomware attack, and she wouldn't say if the government has received a ransom demand.

Health Minister John Haggie said it isn't likely that the government will be able to give more information this week.

"If this is a security issue, it would be totally inappropriate of me to say more than was prudent because security issues are not the same as health," he said.

Back in time

He said he doesn't yet know if people's personal health information has been compromised by the disruption.

Haggie said the province's medical system has been set back about 40 years in terms of technology as a result of the computer systems going down.

"Effectively, what's happened is we've gone back to a paper-based system which was in place in the '80s with minimal connectivity," he said.

Although the problems are affecting Eastern Health the most, all four regional health authorities have been hit. Many non-emergency appointments and even cancer treatments are being rescheduled.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Western Health said many non-emergency procedures and appointments, including surgery, blood collection, endoscopy, medical imaging, outpatient EKG and fracture clinics will not go ahead Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. 

Chemotherapy appointments at Sir Thomas Roddick Hospital and Dr. Charles L. LeGrow Health Centre will proceed on Wednesday, but chemotherapy appointments at Western Memorial Regional Hospital will not.

Patients are being rebooked based on urgency, said Haggie.

During question period, Opposition leader David Brazil called on the government to declare a provincial state of emergency, but Coady said there are no plans to do that.

"At this point in time, I don't see it as an emergency," she said.

Opposition calls for transparency

Brazil told reporters he understands the need for security but wants the government to be more transparent about the source of the problems and the government's response.

"What we're asking for is show us your plan, show us your plan to get people [back to] having access to health care," he said.

NDP MHA Jordan Brown said he wants more clarity and reassurances from the government that information is being protected.

"We would like to know what's going on with our data. Who has it? Who is at our door? And is the rest of our data in jeopardy? That's what we need to know."

NDP MHA Jordan Brown, left, and PC Opposition leader David Brazil are calling for more transparency from the provincial government on the disruption to the health-care system. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Premier Andrew Furey was not present to answer questions about the situation because he is in Glasgow as a part of Canada's delegation to the COP26 summit.

Brazil called on the premier to cut his trip short and return to the province. Coady countered that Furey has been "fully engaged, fully informed" about the situation.

Coady said the government is focused on restoring health-care operations and can't reveal more about the situation because it's a "security issue." 

During question period, Digital Government and Service N.L. Minister Sarah Stoodley would not say when an outside audit of government IT infrastructure was last conducted. She also would not say how much the government has spent on cybersecurity in the past five years, instead saying the government spends money on a "range" of tools.

Stoodley said the government's other online services are being monitored and no abnormalities have been found.

Investigation ongoing

The RCMP said it has launched a criminal investigation into the attack, using specialized forces with experience in cyber threats.

Service provider Bell Aliant declined an interview, but in an emailed statement a spokesperson said the company is working with the Health Department to repair the system.

The spokesperson said the issue is isolated to the Department of Health and is not affecting other Bell Aliant customers. 

"Our immediate focus is on restoring services as quickly as possible," said the spokesperson.

The company said the investigation is ongoing, and it could not provide additional information. No other information about the investigation was provided by the police.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador