Newfoundland and Labrador’s privacy commissioner has voiced his concerns to government over what Michael Harvey calls a violation of access-to-information laws by not sending his office a copy of a new health-care bill before it was read in the House of Assembly on Wednesday.
“We were quite surprised to find the bill … in the public domain yesterday,” Harvey told CBC News.
“This is the first time in seven years that this has happened.”
Bill 20, an act regarding the delivery of health care in the Newfoundland and Labrador and the amalgamation of the province’s four heath authorities, saw its second reading in the House on Wednesday.
The first reading happened about a week ago, according to Health Minister Tom Osborne, which doesn’t reveal the contents of the bill.
In a letter sent to government and obtained by CBC News on Wednesday, Harvey told the provincial government his office didn’t receive a copy of the bill before it was introduced — which he says is necessary as the bill contains implications for the protection of privacy.
“A copy of the bill was never forwarded to this office, despite our requests for same. The only consultation that occurred was a brief, high-level verbal overview, which happened well after notice of the bill was given to the House,” reads the letter.
“Under the circumstances, we have had no opportunity to do a detailed comparison between this bill and existing provincial statutes.… We have only had the bill for a few hours, in fact, at the time of writing of this letter.”
Harvey told government his office’s input would have been greatly welcomed, writing there are three areas of the legislation that he’s concerned with.
The bill says a provincial health authority will establish “a learning health system,” but doesn’t elaborate beyond a definition of the term. Harvey called the phrase “wide open,” saying it’s virtually impossible to discern its meaning or intent.
Harvey also criticized vague language on the social determinants of health, saying it could mean anything, including things that could lead to privacy breaches such as the creation of databases.
Finally, Harvey voiced concerns over the language on the creation of regional health councils, which Osborne said Wednesday will make sure each region of the province is properly represented in the singular health authority.
Harvey said the bill is “far too vague” in its intentions and could result in “significant negative impacts on the privacy of citizens of this province.”
He says these concerns could have been sorted out long before the bill’s second reading. He says he’s not opposed to the general policies but to how they’re being carried out.
“In my view, the bill that’s before the House of Assembly did not have the benefit of careful consideration by my office,” said Harvey.
“So I’m dissatisfied, and all I can do is let the House know that, and let the public know that.”
Opposition calls foul
According to PC Opposition House leader Barry Petten and interim NDP leader Jim Dinn, the privacy commissioner wasn’t the only one who found out about the bill’s contents too late.
Dinn told reporters he was “mystified” at the timing his party learned about the bill, which he says was around lunch time on Tuesday. The Liberals held a technical briefing on the bill Tuesday, Dinn said, but claimed documents weren’t ready for his party to look at.
“They don’t have a slide deck. There’s nothing there for us to look at,” Dinn said Wednesday. “And it’s only when I demanded that, you know, that we have that, that half an hour later we get the legislation? There’s something terribly wrong here.”
Petten said his party was also taken aback by the timing of the bill, saying he received it less than 24 hours before it was read in the House.
“You bring in a piece of legislation that’s going to change the way we deliver health, really.… We needed time to process and digest,” he said. “We had a lot of questions.”
MHAs stayed late Wednesday to debate the bill and make amendments, Petten told reporters, saying debate and committee proceedings would likely continue into Thursday.
Asked about the short notice to the privacy commissioner and the other political parties, Osborne said the bill carries much of the same legislation as the current Health Authorities Act — and said the opposition shouldn’t have been surprised following the first reading of the bill last week.
“The Health Accord called for one health authority. We’d been talking for months about one health authority. This legislation’s first reading was done a week or so ago, so I’m not sure why this would come as a surprise to anybody,” he said.
Osborne said he’s willing to let debate continue in the committee stage of the bill, saying he’s willing to answer any question that comes his way.