NDP presses government on 'Orwellian hush memo' sent to Sask. doctors
Health minister says no doctors are being 'muzzled' by government after SHA memo on 'communication standards'
The Saskatchewan NDP is claiming "an Orwellian hush memo" from the Saskatchewan Health Authority to physicians encouraged them not to speak out publicly and to omit information from meeting minutes.
The health authority memo was titled "Corporate Citizenship" and was sent to the Area Practitioner Advisory Committee on Sept. 24, 2019. The name of the writer was covered up in the memo, which was obtained by the NDP through a freedom of information request.
The memo made reference to "a number of instances ... that have not met communication standards." As examples, it cited:
- The release of meeting minutes that "contained information that should remain confidential" following a freedom of information request.
- "Physician leaders have communicated directly with external agencies," including media, "without informing others in the SHA," the memo said. "This has led to discordant messaging."
- Physicians using health authority letterhead to request additional resources from provincial and federal governments.
The author of the memo asked recipients to "follow corporate identity standards" and closed by saying, "if you do not want to see it in the newspaper, then do not include it in the meeting minutes."
"The government is actively discouraging health-care workers from advocating for patients," said NDP Leader Ryan Meili, who brought up the memo in question period at the legislature on Tuesday. The government has "an allergy to transparency," Meili said.
Health Minister Jim Reiter responded by telling the assembly neither he nor Premier Scott Moe had seen the memo in question.
The debate in the house was stopped on more than one occasion by Speaker Mark Docherty, as the two sides heckled back and forth.
No 'muzzling' of doctors, health minister says
Following question period, Reiter said he would follow up with the senior officials at the SHA. He called the memo "worded poorly."
"We want people to speak freely. We're not muzzling anyone, certainly not doctors," Reiter said.
"I'm gonna talk to senior managers as soon as I get an opportunity this afternoon and ask them to clarify that the doctors, that they're not being muzzled."
Meili said the memo was sent one month after the province dropped its request for proposals on a phone line that would allow the public to submit concerns about health care. Meili referred to it as a "snitch hotline."
"We're calling on the premier today to state unequivocally that front-line health-care workers are the solution to problems in our health care and should be listened to, not silenced," Meili said.
Reiter said any suggestion that the memo was directed by politicians was incorrect.
"This was brought in the floor of the legislature kind of insinuating that somehow I directed this or the premier directed this. Nothing could be further from the truth," Reiter said.
"I meet with doctors all the time and I guess the part I kind of took exception to in there was somehow that doctors are fearing for their jobs, and they're gonna be dismissed if they speak out if they advocate. I would say the exact opposite has been true."
Reiter said Meili, as a physician before he was elected, lobbied for investment in drugs to help people with HIV.
In response to questions about the memo, a Saskatchewan Health Authority spokesperson said its intent "was to ensure that any publicly accessible documents follow privacy legislation."
The spokesperson's statement said it was also intended to remind physicians to "be clear" on who they are representing when they speak.
"The SHA does not have a policy, nor was there ever any intent, to restrict staff or physicians from exercising their right to free speech," the spokesperson's statement said.
"We recognize additional clarity is required. We will be working in the following days to ensure staff and physicians are clear on the intent of this memo."