Personal information collected, used, and shared about a Saskatoon care aide who was suspended and later fired after speaking out was not authorized under privacy acts, Saskatchewan’s privacy commissioner has reported.
The privacy commissioner, Ronald Kruzeniski, initiated an investigation into Oliver Lodge, the Saskatoon Regional Health Authority (SRHA), the Ministry of Health, and the Executive Council.
All were involved in the exchange of information about Peter Bowden, who worked at Oliver Lodge. He raised concerns with the privacy commissioner about his employment information being shared with media after a member in the Premier’s Office supplied that information to several outlets.
A chart from the privacy commissioner’s report showing the flow of information.
Bowden had spoken out about his concerns for senior care in care facilities prior to his information being shared publicly.
“We found that Oliver Lodge improperly disclosed personal information. We found that Saskatoon Health improperly disclosed personal information. We also found that the Ministry of Health collected, used and disclosed personal information without authority,” Kruzeniski announced.
However, certain legislation does not apply to the health minister’s office or the premier’s office.
“The Freedom of Information and Privacy Act does not apply to Minister’s offices or MLA’s offices, and it does not apply to the staffs of those offices,” he explained.
During Kruzeniski’s investigation, that loophole was quickly discovered.
“There is no law that applies to them right now. There is no standard, there is no benchmark, there is no guideline, there’s no legal set of rules to which one could compare to.”
“Is this a concern? Yes, and the question is, where should we go in the future?” he asked. ” I believe this gap needs to be filled in some way.”
The privacy commissioner has made recommendations in his report, including that:
Oliver Lodge, the Saskatoon Regional Health Authority, and the Ministry of Health apologize to Bowden.
Oliver Lodge, the Saskatoon Regional Health Authority, and the Ministry of Health develop policies and procedures to determine when it is appropriate to request and disclose personal information.
The protection of personal information be extended to MLAs and members of executive council by amendments to FOIP.
When asked if he considered making a recommendation that somebody should lost their job over the breach of information, Kruzeniski said the option was there but it wasn’t something they seriously contemplated. He did admit it gets extremely tempting.
The premier reacts
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said he will apologize for what he calls a mistake in the process for releasing private information.
“The buck stops with the Minister’s office and the premier’s office in all matters of government I would argue, including in this one,” Wall said. “Notwithstanding that there’s this part of the legislation that’s not applicable to Executive Council, I just think it’s important that I offer [an apology] and I do so today.”
The premier said he was not actually aware of the gap in the FOIP Act that creates an exemption for elected government MLAs, Ministers, and their office staff. He said the government will pursue the recommendation for reviewing and changing the legislation.
“I think it should apply to all members of the legislature,” Wall said. “Even though I don’t think we’ll be able to review it and pass it this fall … at the very least we should operate as if the current act applies. I will, and hope that all members of the legislature will do the same.”
Despite admitting the process was flawed, the premier still stands behind the decision to release the information about Bowden’s workplace issues. He said it was in the public interest to know he wasn’t suspended for whistle blowing.
“The mistake was not in trying to clarify the information that Mr. Bowden’s workplace issues had nothing to do with him coming forward,” he said. “I stand by that. That, to me, is in the public interest so that health care workers will know they have that protection going forward.”
NDP Deputy Leader Trent Wotherspoon said the circumstances around Bowden’s case “don’t pass the smell test.”
“It’s a damning report of the actions of the premier and the premier’s office though, and really it shows that the premier sort of gets off on some sort of technicality on this front and that’s not good enough,” Wotherspoon said.
Wotherspoon said the government needs to turn its focus to fixing the privacy legislation to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
“This is coming from the premier who has defended his own inappropriate actions that were clear from the get go all the way along, so he better be sorry,” Wotherspoon said.
He said the NDP opposition MLAs are ready to push to get the FOIP Act changed in a timely manner.
Saskatoon Health Region to apologize to Bowden
The Saskatoon Health Region (SHR) will send a letter of apology to Bowden, according to SHR president and CEO Dan Florizone.
“The recommendation of the privacy commissioner was to apologize and I accept that,” Florizone said outside the Royal University Hospital after the report’s release
Florizone explained the breach happened when a senior administrator sent an email to the Ministry of Health about Bowden.
“(The email) did not name an individual but it alerted and there was sufficient information to draw conclusions that who they were talking about was an individual who had recently come to the legislative assembly,” Florizone said.
“I take responsibility for the breach. I didn’t personally breach the information but as the CEO the buck stops with me.”
After the report’s release SHR held a senior leadership meeting to work at revision to policy in terms of disclosure, transparency, and public reporting.
“We do have policies on confidentiality, on what’s safe guarded , and also on the flip side of that we have policies around transparency and release of public reporting,” Florizone said. ”What we need to do now is make sure that those two are in sync.”
Florizone reiterated that Bowden’s firing was not linked to whistleblowing. He said they have expanded their resources for people to raise concerns.
“We appreciate that the staff encounter issues, they have the ability to raise those issues, and we have several avenues right now that are being expanded so we can hear 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the concerns as they arise so that we can easily respond,” he said.
SHR have expanded a phone line called Dial 1,600 to St. Paul’s Hospital, Royal University Hospital, and City Hospital where staff and patients can call and get an immediate response by administration. Florizone said there are plans to expand it across the province.
“A very good day” for Peter Bowden
For the man at the centre of the case, fired care aide Peter Bowden, the privacy commissioner’s report has been a rare bit of good news.
“I’ve had some very, very, bad days in the last five months with this investigation. Now is a good day,” he said in an interview with News Talk Tuesday.
Bowden said he doesn’t believe premier Brad Wall’s claim that he didn’t know his office was exempt from the information privacy laws. Regardless, it’s something he believes should change.
“I think the premier should stand and say he is not above the law,” he said.
Bowden adds he is not ready to accept Wall’s apology. He is still waiting on the findings of two other investigations related to his termination.
With files from Kevin Martel, Adriana Christianson, Kelly Malone and Kurtis Doering