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The biggest B.C. scandal you’ve never heard of

Despite calls running for a public inquiry into the firings of B.C. health researchers, the story has flown largely under the radar.

The B.C. Health Ministry fired eight employees in September 2012.

The B.C. Health Ministry fired eight employees in September 2012.

The B.C. government chose the sleepy window between Christmas and New Year’s to announce a major development in one of the biggest scandals in B.C. history — but unless you are a die-hard news junkie, chances are you’ve never even heard of it.

The 2012 Health Ministry Firings scandal has all the makings of a Hollywood political thriller, but seems to have barely registered in the public consciousness.

Here’s the Coles notes:

In September 2012, the B.C. Health Ministry quietly fires eight employees involved in research that helps assess the safety and effectiveness of prescription drugs, some of whom administer funding to the Therapeutics Initiative (TI), an independent watchdog at UBC that also assesses prescription drugs. As a result of the firings, less than a year later the province cuts all funding for the Therapeutics Initiative (TI). (One drug policy analyst affiliated with the University of Victoria, Alan Cassels, says that thanks to the TI, B.C. spends the least per capita on pharmaceuticals in the country, and it has saved thousands of lives by discovering fatal side effects of some expensive new drugs).

At the time, the government and those fired give vastly different accounts of the reason for the firings. The Ministry claims employees inappropriately accessed sensitive medical records, and that they have referred the matter to RCMP. However, a Vancouver Sun investigation found the province never sent the Mounties any evidence, and so there never was any RCMP investigation.

All of the researchers call for a public inquiry and sue the government for wrongful termination, and a co-op student whose second attempt at his PhD was thwarted by his firing tragically takes his own life just a few months later. His family cites the stress of the ordeal as the major cause.

Another of the fired researchers, Bill Warburton, alleges in his lawsuit that the BC Liberals are in the pocket of drug companies, receiving significant contributions from some of the same companies whose medications are part of the province's drug plans. (A 2013 analysis found drug companies’ political contributions to the BC Liberals outstripped those to the BC NDP 11 to 1. And according to Warburton, his research found that about 60,000 people now taking anti-psychotic drugs will die prematurely — not exactly that kind of information drug makers want out there.)

Fast-forward to Dec. 29, when the government announced it had awarded a sizable cash settlement to Warburton and his wife Rebecca Warburton, who also worked for the Health Ministry. The amount was not disclosed, but it is likely in the millions, and the government has also given cash settlements to all the other living fired researchers. But because Bill Warburton’s case will not go to trail, none of his allegations of government corruption will be tested in court.

An independent lawyer hired to probe the firings could not figure out who made the decision to fire the researchers, or why, citing a complete lack of records. The B.C. Ombudsperson is now investigating, at a projected cost to taxpayers of $1.2 million. And that’s just the beginning of the bill for this debacle. Settlements, lawyers, and numerous investigations, both internal and independent, could easily run into the tens of millions, though that’s just a guess, because the government won’t release the figures for the bigger line items.

Despite editorials running on the front pages of numerous local newspapers calling for a public inquiry, this scandal remains mostly unnoticed, banished to the hinterland of public opinion.

Maybe it needs a catchier name in order to register with voters before the next provincial election in 2017. Pharmagate. The Pharmacare Affair. Maybe Michael Moore needs to come make a slanted, over-the-top film about it.

I don’t know how to make people pay attention, even though there are so many jaw-dropping revelations and allegations, because it’s such a complicated story.

But here’s what I do know. The government is using millions of taxpayers’ dollars to try to obfuscate the facts and make this problem go away. Let’s be clear – the truth coming out is not a problem for any British Columbian. It is only a problem for this particular government. They are using your money to cover their you-know-whats.

Now that’s a firing offense.

Kate Webb is an unapologetic muckraker and political junkie who lives and writes in Vancouver.

Correction: An earlier version of this story published Jan. 18 stated that the eight fired workers worked for the Therapeutics Initiative. That was incorrect, as they worked for the Health Ministry, which administers funding to the Therapeutics Initiative (TI). Both the fired workers and the TI were involved in research that assesses the safety and efficiency of prescription drugs. Metro regrets the error.