Transparency key to a healthy tomorrow for Ontario “Sunshine is the best disinfectant” – Lewis Brandeis

By MPP Toby Barrett

While most budget deliberations focus on spending plans, our Finance Committee proceedings have been sidetracked recently by a two-line amendment government hoped to bury.

Schedule 15 of Bill 173, the Better Tomorrow for Ontario Act, changes the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act threatens to derail transparency and accountability measures gained just a few short months ago.

Specifically, the amendment takes aim at hospital transparency measures, as called for in December’s Broader Public Sector Accountability Act, that enable hospitals to shield from public scrutiny any information about quality of care produced for or by a hospital committee. As some may recall, the 2010 Accountability Act was a response to a series of revelations that alarmed and offended taxpayers; including reports of lavish spending by hospital executives and consultants, as well as the eHealth scandal.

At the time, the Minister of Health described the Accountability Act as a process of pulling out the fridge: “It’s not something you want to do, there might be a mess back there, but at the end of the day, it has to be done.” And as I heard it said in committee, “You have to bring sunlight and you have to be ready to expose and to clean up misuse of public funds that would otherwise erode public confidence.”

Fast forward five months. On the Finance Committee, PC colleague Norm Miller, NDP Peter Tabuns and myself were out voted in our attempt to delete Schedule 15 – a government move that will block the sunlight, and push the fridge back without cleaning up the mess.

Witnesses who travelled to Queens Park to testify before Finance included a number of area residents who had previously met with me to object to Schedule 15.

Dunville’s Ed Vander Vegte pointed out to members of the Committee, “access to all medical records is necessary to determine if negligence has indeed occurred. Access to medical information is also necessary to determine if the negligence is ongoing and how many patients may have been affected.”

As well, Dunnville’s Kim Hessels testified that Schedule 15 , “appear(s) to discriminate against the vulnerable as they prioritize resources above patient safety…It seems clear to me that Schedule 15 will prevent me and others from gaining access to documents to better understand how our hospitals are run regarding who gets care and who does not.”

Adding to the secrecy concerns is a recent report from a large law firm advising hospitals to avoid an eHealth-like scandal by “cleansing” files before they become publicly available. The four-page memo said hospitals face “significant reputational risks” from freedom-of-information law, and advised hospitals to consider “cleansing existing files” on or before Dec. 31, 2011, subject to legislative record-keeping requirements.

It’s worth noting that a year ago, we in Opposition introduced the Truth in Government Act, proposing measures to create more openness and accountability across all of government – including hospitals. But, at the time, government members voted down greater accountability and taxpayer protection.

As Kim Hessels concluded, “I believe it is time for Ontario citizens to have full transparency and accountability in all matters related to the health care they receive. We may not have all the answers or the right answers, but as parents and as citizens, we’d like to be involved.”