Ombudsman still starved of staff

Last year, a Whitehorse Correctional Centre inmate had a problem jail staff wouldn't resolve: he was supposed to take medication in the morning, but by the time nurses arrived the man's work crew had left the building.

Last year, a Whitehorse Correctional Centre inmate had a problem jail staff wouldn’t resolve: he was supposed to take medication in the morning, but by the time nurses arrived the man’s work crew had left the building.

So he took his drugs at night, against doctors’ orders. It turned out he wasn’t alone. Several other inmates had the same problem. But complaints went nowhere.

Then the man took his complaint up with Yukon’s ombudsman, who is charged with ferreting out unfairness within government. In short order, the problem was solved: jail staff agreed to have nurses make early rounds, before work crews left.

Ombudsman Tracy-Anne McPhee has several such anecdotes included in her annual report. She expects she would have more, but the inadequate staffing of her office means many files remain unopened every year.

McPhee has two hours a day to work as the territory’s ombudsman and another two hours as commissioner for access to information and protection of privacy. She has three full-time staff to support both roles.

It’s not enough. Nearly one-quarter of the complaints addressed to Yukon’s ombudsman went unaddressed in 2009.

The ombudsman received a total of 145 complaints that year, including 53 cases carried forward from the previous year.

By year-end, 92 cases had been resolved, while 36 cases had yet to be analyzed.

Some cases are simply too complicated to look at without additional staff, said McPhee.

During the winter, she once again requested the territory consider making her job full time. She’s made similar requests since 2007, to no avail.

In another case involving Whitehorse Correctional Centre, an inmate who was a First Nation woman was diagnosed with a “serious chronic medical condition.” Her doctor and a specialist recommended expensive treatment.

Had the woman not been an inmate, the cost of the medication would have been covered by a government insurance plan. But the health care of inmates comes out of the prison’s budget.

The jail had paid for similar treatments in the past for other inmates. But in this woman’s case, the prison decided it didn’t have enough money to proceed.

Shortly after the ombudsman launched an investigation, corrections staff changed their minds and paid for the treatment.

In another case, an obese man wanted surgery to help him lose weight. His doctor recommended one type of bariatric surgery, which would shrink the size of his stomach to limit the amount of food that can be eaten.

But the territory’s health insurers said no, arguing that the surgery was needlessly expensive and had not yet cleared long-term studies. The man accepted this decision and paid for the surgery himself.

Sometime later, he discovered that another Yukoner had received the same surgery – and the government had paid for it. So he complained.

The ensuing investigation found the territory’s health insurers “did not have a clear transparent process for making these decisions, nor did it have an appeal or review process in place.”

Following the ombudsman’s recommendations, the territory’s insurers overhauled how they made decisions. And they paid for the man’s surgery.

In another case, a Whitehorse man on social assistance found himself cut off from receiving his shelter allowance because he was unable to get a rent receipt from the right person.

The department demanded he get a receipt from the house owner. But the owner wouldn’t give one because the property acquisition was a temporary one and the rental was being handled by someone else.

After the ombudsman poked around on the case, Health staff “looked beyond a strict adherence to a policy and the paperwork to see a person who has real needs and a problem that needed a solution,” states the report. “The case was resolved quickly, without a full investigation.”

A final example in the ombudsman’s report has already received much previous publicity. It’s the story of Sheldon Miller, a Whitehorse resident who found himself on the hook for a $20,000 medevac bill health workers had initially assured him he would not have to pay.

He was two days shy of becoming a Yukon citizen at the time of evacuation, so he wasn’t yet insured by the territory.

The ombudsman objected that Miller’s treatment was unfair and tabled a letter about the matter in the legislature – a first for her office.

Premier Dennis Fentie and Health Minister Glenn Hart initially stood by the decision made by officials. But in March of last year, four years after Miller was evacuated to Vancouver for fear he was about to have a heart attack, the Yukon Hospital Corporation forgave his debt, following a series of articles by the Yukon News on the case.

Wearing her other cap as Yukon’s access to information czar, McPhee is largely pleased by the government’s reforms to its Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which expanded the number of institutions that are expected to comply with the law.

But the government hasn’t gone as far as McPhee would like. Crown corporations such as Yukon Energy, the Yukon Housing Corporation and the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board are now covered. But municipalities, school boards and school councils still aren’t.

It would only take a tweak of a regulation to fix this. McPhee urged the government to make these changes. It responded by saying it would need 18 months to think it over. “That is far too long,” McPhee wrote in her report.

She’s also still waiting for the territory to conduct a comprehensive review of its access to information laws.

It held a review in the autumn of 2008 that was limited to eight specific questions the government asked. McPhee replied with 19 recommendations, most of which were adopted.

A comprehensive review is planned. But it won’t be held until 2015. McPhee hopes to see it happen “much sooner.”

Contact John Thompson at