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Health staffers fired in data breach

Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid - Black Press
Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid
— image credit: Black Press

VICTORIA – Four B.C. health ministry employees were fired Thursday and two research contractors have been suspended as police investigate misuse of patient data used for drug approval research.

Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said Thursday the RCMP have been asked to investigate, after an internal ministry probe looked at contracting and research grant practices between ministry staff and researchers working at the University of B.C. and University of Victoria.

MacDiarmid, briefed on the case on her first day as health minister, said she found the situation "disturbing." She said the investigation centres on patient prescription data used to determine what drugs should be covered by the province's Pharmacare program. She wouldn't say specifically why people were fired, except that a conflict of interest involving family members is part of the investigation.

The ministry investigation started in May, after an anonymous tip to B.C. Auditor General John Doyle's office about possible contracting irregularities. The ministry looked at financial controls, employee-contractor relationships and data management, finding evidence of potential conflict of interest, as well as inappropriate contract management and data access with outside drug researchers.

MacDiarmid said she is not aware of evidence that there was financial gain or that drug companies benefited from the information, which was found in possession of people who were not authorized to have it. The information was used for research only, and MacDiarmid said she is not aware of evidence that individual patients have been affected.

Two research contracts worth $4 million have been suspended, along with data access for the two contractors. All ministry data sharing with drug researchers has been temporarily suspended.

"Researchers can use this kind of information in a way that helps us to improve the health care system in ways that can actually save lives and can improve the quality of patients' lives," MacDiarmid said. "I believe that what happened here is rare, but it needs to not happen at all."

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