Public funds spent on legal arguments to keep records barred from public
The public may soon be able to read more internal reports about provincial health services after a ruling ordered them opened up.
A year ago, this journalist had applied though the B.C. freedom of information law for summaries of five internal audits from the Provincial Health Services Authority. The PHSA refused, and an appeal was sent to the information and privacy commissioner in Victoria.
On Jan. 19, the commissioners adjudicator Jay Fedorak ordered two of the summaries released in full, and parts of the other three. (The PHSA has 30 days to appeal the order to court, and has not yet said if it will.)
Over the past year, as the basis for news stories, the Courier has used FOI to obtain audits from Vancouver city hall and the B.C. finance ministrys comptroller general. These dealt with topics such as health and safety, and the wasteful spending of public funds. But now these reports are becoming much harder to access, because these public bodies have started claiming more exemptions to keep them secret. The Courier has appealed these withholdings to the commissioner, and await rulings on them.
The PHSA seems to have gone out of its way to throw up anything and everything to keep these records secret, and they failed, said Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. They even tried to give themselves the power to hold board meetings in secret to justify keeping the records out of the public eye. Hopefully they have learned their lesson, and will stop wasting everybody's time and resources to try to block transparency."
Unlike the five B.C. regional health authorities, the PHSA is responsible for health care services that must be delivered provincially. From its headquarters at 1380 Burrard St., it oversees the B.C. Cancer Agency, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the B.C. Mental Health Society, the B.C. Transplant Society, the Childrens and Womens Health Centre, and the B.C. Ambulance Service. Part of a complex network, and with $2.28 billion in revenue for 2011/12, the PHSA trains 4,000 healthcare students, helps plan the HIV/AIDS program, and seeks to reduce B.C. health costs by consolidating services, such as research ($180 million annually), chest surgery and trauma services.
Utilizing lawyers at public expense, the PHSA made its arguments using in-camera affidavits. Even the audits topic headings were so sensitive, Fedorak wrote, that he could not mention them in his public order. The authority kept all five summaries secret by claiming exemptions in the FOI law, that is, releasing them would reveal the substance of deliberations (under section 12), and it would also reveal advice or recommendations (section 13).
But to use section 12, a public body must have a statutory authority to meet in private, and Fedorak found the PHSA did not have this authority as it had claimed. On section 13, he wrote that most of the audits were not made up of advice, but of factual background data instead, so the PHSA could only withhold some parts, not all of them.
Fedorak also rejected the PHSAs claim that releasing the audits could cause it financial harm (section 17) because it lacked proof, writing: The PHSA makes merely bald assertions about potential harm that is vague and speculative.