Health survey was illegal: ombudsman

It may be illegal, but it worked. That's the reaction by the Department of Health and Social Services to a scolding it received from Yukon's ombudsman for violating privacy laws.

It may be illegal, but it worked.

That’s the reaction by the Department of Health and Social Services to a scolding it received from Yukon’s ombudsman for violating privacy laws.

The controversy involves a Health Department survey sent to Yukoners this summer. It warned, “If you do not sign and return this card your health care could be cancelled.”

Some residents took this as a threat. “This undermined the voluntary nature of the survey,” wrote Yukon ombudsman Tracy-Anne McPhee in a report released this week.

It wasn’t an empty threat, either. The Health department took the names of approximately 300 nonrespondents and cancelled their health insurance, without notice, if they had not filed a temporary absence form, a change of address form or visited a health-care professional in the past year.

The results were “somewhat absurd,” McPhee found. Some Yukoners may have had their health insurance yanked for no other reason than their refusal to return a voluntary survey, she noted.

Health’s defence? “To their knowledge no one who was entitled to insurance was actually denied health care and only a small group of people were inconvenienced by having to … provide evidence of Yukon residency and have their health-care insurance reinstated.”

But “this is missing the point,” wrote McPhee. “Cancellation of health-care insurance is not an available penalty for failing to respond to a voluntary survey.”

The Health Department took these measures to weed out one-time Yukoners who no longer live in the territory, but still use Yukon’s plush extended medical care to obtain cheaper drugs.

That’s an expense that Yukon’s cash-strapped Health Department cannot afford, said Health spokesperson Pat Living. “The well is not bottomless.”

Health officials had good reason to suspect freeloaders exist: the number of people on the health-care insurance registry outnumbers Yukon’s population by up to 2,000 people, said Living.

The department had conducted similar surveys over the past decade, but received few responses. While the warning on the survey may have angered some residents, it was also effective in boosting the number of responses.

McPhee concluded the survey ran afoul of the law in two ways. First, the Health Department and statistics bureau lacked a modern data-sharing agreement, as required under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Such an agreement does exist, said Living. But it predates Yukon’s privacy laws.

Second, the survey should have given recipients the option of objecting to sharing their personal information with the Health Department, said McPhee. Health will comply with all of McPhee’s recommendations, said Living.

The department still hasn’t settled on what next summer’s survey will look like.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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