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EDITORIAL: The health department needs a time-out

The information and privacy commissioner deserves to be treated better

Even if you don’t have any children, most Yukoners likely have some experience witnessing an epic toddler tantrum.

There are a few classics: red in the face, shouting “You can’t make me!!” while pounding their tiny fists on the floor; or how about “I can’t hear you!” while humming loudly and pretending the adults in the room don’t exist.

For more than the last year the people in charge of information at the Yukon Department of Health and Social Services appear to have been channelling those instincts and the territory’s information and privacy commissioner (IPC) has had enough.

In a letter to deputy heath and social services minister Stephen Samis, Yukon’s IPC Diane McLeod-McKay lays out the struggles she has had getting the department to take her seriously and work with her office.

She says she has been “plagued by a lack of response in most cases” when dealing with the department.

“It is not uncommon for the Department to be involved with my office given the nature of its programs and services,” she wrote. “What is uncommon is the lack of cooperation by the Department in working with my office to bring these matters to successful resolution … We do not experience any of these challenges with other Yukon government public bodies, or any other body for that matter, that we deal with.”

The latest news, released earlier this week, deals with two complaints dating back to 2018.

McLeod-McKay made a series of recommendations for improvements. At first the department accepted all of them and most were eventually implimented. But when they thought about the amount of work involved in implementing a couple, officials changed their mind. Or, as a toddler might put it: “You can’t make me!”

For anyone who wants to see the documentation for themselves, McLeod-McKay’s office has published her final reports and the correspondence with health officials on her website. In doing do, she’s already more transparent than Health and Social Services (and most other government departments, frankly.)

Of all the territorial departments to thumb their nose at the Yukon’s independent privacy watchdog, the fact that it’s the Department of Health and Social Services is particularly concerning.

Health and Social Services is one of the largest departments in the government and it deals with some of the most private of Yukoners’ information.

Officials there should be the most concerned when they violate the various privacy laws, including the Health Information Privacy and Management Act. Instead they are treating McLeod-McKay like a pest and not the expert that she is.

Dismissing the Yukon’s access and privacy legislation is something this department has gotten away with in the past.

Just over a year ago McLeod-McKay’s office found that the health department broke privacy legislation by asking a doctor for more patient information than necessary to process a billing claim in 2016.

She was forced to hold a hearing on the issue because the health department claimed that it didn’t have any of the records.

This whole situation should be setting off alarm bells.

Health Minister Pauline Frost was copied on some of the correspondence between the commissioner and the health department. McLeod-McKay told us that this is the first time she’s ever felt compelled to include a minister in these types of conflicts.

Frost can’t claim ignorance of what’s been going on and should be expected to act.

At a bare minimum, the culture in her department needs to change. That starts with having a boss who does not accept the kind of behaviour her department has repeatedly showed towards the information and privacy commissioner.

Think of how bad things must be for McLeod-McKay to write the letters she did and make them public. She’s clearly putting faith in Minister Frost that something will change.

Frost needs to recognize these actions as a sign of urgency.

We’ve already written about Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn not going far enough with the Yukon’s new access to information and privacy legislation but it’s worth pointing out again.

Unlike other jurisdictions, the Yukon’s IPC does not have the power to issue orders, she can only make recommendations. Like in this situation, those recommendations can be ignored without any consequences.

In Newfoundland, it’s the public body that has to go to court if it wants to ignore a recommendation.

At least if the Yukon had a system like that, the government would not be so quick to ignore McLeod-McKay and dismiss what she has to say.

The fact that the only recourse for average Yukoners if the government ignores a recommendation is to take the department to court continues to be completely unreasonable. The average Yukoner does not have the resources to go against the government.

If the health department is any indication that’s what those in charge are counting on.

Maybe officials have a valid explanation. We tried to give them a chance to tell us. But, like McLeod-McKay, we have been “plagued by a lack of response in most cases.” (AJ)