A senior manager fired during a misguided crackdown on drug safety researchers in British Columbia says he hopes a report due out Thursday on the 2012 affair turns voters against the government.
“The people responsible (in the Ministry of Health), nothing’s going to happen to them. The only thing that could happen for the people who were fired is that the government would get defeated,” said Ron Mattson, now a municipal councillor in View Royal near Victoria, on Wednesday.
“That’s the only thing that would have any relevance for us at all.”
B.C.’s Ombudsperson Jay Chalke has spent more than a year investigating how the government fired eight health care researchers in the pharmaceutical division of the Ministry of Health — including Mattson — yet later apologized, rehired or paid settlements to most of them.
Chalke's potentially damning report would come at an awkward time for the Liberal government as it’s up for re-election on May 9.
It’s expected that the official response won’t come from the department where the saga began under mysterious circumstances, but from senior politicians who have already apologized for the firings.
The most disturbing aspect of the case was the suicide of one of the researchers — a PhD student — before Premier Christy Clark admitted a mistake had been made.
Christy Clark said government had apologized for 'mistake' in 2015
Both the current Health Minister Terry Lake, who is not seeking re-election, and Clark apologized in 2014 to the family of Roderick MacIsaac which had asked for a public inquiry following the death the 46-year-old University of Victoria co-op student.
“In these circumstances, it was very appropriate that government apologize for what the health minister, I think, appropriately characterized as very heavy-handed actions,” Clark said at the time.
Clark revisited the affair in 2015, saying in general, “Government very much regrets that mistake that was made… It shouldn’t have been made and government has apologized for it. It was wrong.”
Mattson says the fired researchers were floored by the accusations in 2012, particularly the claim by then minister of health Margaret MacDiarmid that they were all under RCMP investigation, something that never happened.
“It’s hard for someone who’s not in that situation to comprehend what kind of stress you went through. You have one of the most respected people in the province, the minister of health, come out and basically say we were guilty of some sort of criminal wrongdoing and the RCMP were going to be involved,” says Mattson.
“At that point I had a pension to fall back on; Roderick had nothing. It basically ruined his career. He was told he was never going to work in government again, he lost his opportunity to get his PhD.”
Motivation for the firings remain a mystery but at least two theories exist
Ombudsperson Chalke has been examining a complex five-year drama which started with a whistleblower within the department suggesting that part-time researchers were in a conflict of interest for funnelling work to their own research groups outside the ministry. Initial allegations also said the researchers breached privacy rules on the handling of data.
All seven researchers — Mattson, Ramsay Hamdi, Robert Hart, Malcolm Maclure, David Scott, Rebecca Warburton, William Warburton — and Linda Kayfish, MacIsaac’s sister, sent an open letter to the minister of health in 2015 asking for a review to be conducted at arm’s length from government. They said important research into the safety and effectiveness of pharmaceutical drugs came to a halt when their work was stopped.
Maclure, a University of British Columbia professor, and data expert Hart have been rehired by the department.
Husband and wife health economists William and Rebecca Warburton, who is also a University of Victoria professor, received an undisclosed cash settlement from the province in 2015 following a wrongful dismissal suit.
Mattson received a financial settlement in 2014 from the province which called his dismissal a “regrettable mistake.”
Mattson says now that the motivation behind the firings remains a mystery although he’s heard two dominant theories: It could have been prompted by powers within the pharmaceutical industry who wanted the government to scale back research on the usefulness of medications it covers under the provincial health plan; or ministry of health staff simply bungled their reaction to the whistleblower’s concerns.
Alan Cassels, a drug policy researcher and author based in Victoria, estimates the scandal has costs B.C. taxpayers more than $100 million in investigations, settlements and by continuing to pay for medications that might be harmful or ineffective.
If taxpayers ask who stood to gain from the dismissals, there is only one answer, he says.
“Clearly the only group that benefits from the weakening of independent drug safety research is the drug industry,” Cassels said in an email. “They donate generously to the B.C. Liberals. The amount of money is huge but the biggest problem is that we citizens have been left more vulnerable because of this scandal.”