NDP publication of health region memo sparks debate

Funny how truthful Photoshop can be. Dmitry Abramov manipulation by John Loeppky

“hush memo” attempts to accountability in the SHA

As first reported by numerous media outlets, including CBC’s Adam Hunter, the NDP released a document they had obtained that leaders have labelled a bush memo sent to Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) that advised members communicating in meetings, “If you do not want to see it in the newspaper, then do not include it in the meeting minutes,”  raising obvious questions about accountability within the relatively newly amalgamated health region.

The document, obtained via the party through a freedom of information request was just one of those obtained through the process that allows for the release of previously held documents. In an interview with the Carillon, NDP leader Ryan Meili said that this memo wasn’t the only area of interest that came from the release of documents, but declined to be drawn on what else they had uncovered

“We’d been hearing that there’d been some communications along those lines and we were just investigating a number of things going on within the health authority, this was just one that came to our attention through the FOI.”

Meili said that the change in policy, labelled as a “quick review” by health minister Jim Reiter in an interview with Global after the considerable blowback, was unlikely to happen as wanted.

“There’s never been whistleblower protections within the health region, so the preexisting health regions didn’t have those and so the SHA also doesn’t, that’s likely going to take more than a quick review, what we should have is a clear promise that folks working within the health system should have the same whistleblower protection as anyone in this government.”

Previously, the various health regions were treated as independent associations and those lacked whistleblower protections. Meili said that the Saskatchewan Party government currently in power is one where “there’s a lot of fear.”

“A lot of people within various departments, Environment, Social Services, Education, and particularly Health are identifying real problems but they’re not feeling confident that they can speak out about them without potentially losing their employment or losing funding for their work and that’s really created a culture of intimidation and fear.”

As recently as August, a Regina Leader-Post article detailed the Saskatchewan’s Health Authority’s want to explore the idea of a reporting hotline for those in violation of policies and procedures. As reported by Arthur White-Crummey, the call for vendors read in part, “The SHA is seeking proposals from vendors to provide a ‘hotline’ service that can be used for anonymous reporting to the organization where employees and others are suspected of violating SHA policies, codes of conduct, or legal requirements.” There is no evidence that this proposed hotline would attempt to alleviate government interference concerns or the lack of public transparency with the SHA.

Neither the government nor the opposition are sure whether the talked about changes to whistleblower protections are ones that have to be made through a regulation or an amendment, with one taking much longer than the other.

Meili resisted the idea the memo’s stated concern, – outside of limiting publicity – addressing privacy concerns, was a legitimate one.

“I do not because the memo isn’t really talking about privacy issues and privacy is protected in a number of ways.”

Meili pointed to the preexisting legislation (The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act or PIPEDA) that governs patient privacy, along with the freedom of information request process that involves the redaction of any personal identifying information of the patients.

“It’s also just not consistent with the tone of the message. It was very much about making sure that people stayed lock-step with the health authority’s message box and you understand how organizations have a desire to make sure that their messaging is consistent but when it comes to situations where physicians and others are consistently and repeatedly raising legitimate and serious concerns about care provision within the health authority and they aren’t responded to, the right answer isn’t, ‘don’t talk about this anymore,’ the right answer is giving people [a system] one: for the health authority to respond; and two, for people to be fully aware of what’s actually going on.”

The main sentence capturing the ire of those who believe that the wrongs of a system should be recorded for the public record read, “If you do not want to see it in the newspaper, then do not include it in the meeting minutes.” Meili, when asked, said that the issue of transparency isn’t just isolated in the health region, but across government more broadly.

“I think that statement is particularly offensive, saying to not record the truth because someone might find out. This isn’t about protecting anyone’s private information, that’s about not identifying and being honest about the real concerns, and there are real problems in our healthcare system. Hallway medicine being practiced constantly in our emergency rooms, we’ve got nowhere near the access to primary care we should have . . . What the SHA should be working on is fixing those problems not in telling people how to hide them.”

The Saskatchewan Government released a guide for the writing of whistleblower legislation for municipalities as recently as 2016, speaking to other government employees about the protections currently not in place for those in the health region.

“It is also important to note that municipal employees, like all employees in Saskatchewan, currently have rights and protection from reprisal under federal and provincial legislation, such as The Saskatchewan Employment Act and the Criminal Code (Canada). Municipal bylaws and/or policies can build on these existing rights and protections and provide an opportunity for internal disclosure, reporting and resolution before an employee feels the need to report a matter to provincial or federal authorities. This document has been prepared to serve as a guide for municipalities and their employees to better understand the existing legislative protection and frameworks in place in Saskatchewan regarding whistleblowing and to consider additional internal measures to support this framework and further protect their employees. Municipalities are advised to consult a solicitor to obtain legal advice regarding bylaws and policies developed in this regard.”

Meili pointed to parking issues at Regina hospitals – many breaks-ins have occurred as parking costs continue to rise in surrounding areas – and also spoke to the rise of violence and burnout being seen in hospitals as areas of concern that need to be addressed by the government, calling the problems “constant.”

The MLA for Saskatoon-Meewasin, himself a physician, didn’t hold back when asked about the government’s approachto instituting whistleblower protections moving forward.

“We’ll see, obviously it would be a positive thing, that’s why we proposed adding whistleblower protections, but I think we’re really needing to see a different larger cultural shift. This is a government whose approach to trouble is to tell people to shut up about it instead of urging people to speak up and fix it, and we hear constantly that people are afraid that if they speak up and say what’s really going on they will lose their employment and we just can’t continue in that way.”

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