As the B.C Health Ministry's probe into an alleged privacy breach continues, an independent research group that acts as a drugsafety watchdog for British Columbians has learned its government contracts and funding have been suspended.
"What we've been told is to stop work on everything," said Dr. Colin Dormuth, a researcher at Therapeutics Initiative, based at the University of B.C.
On Wednesday, Therapeutics Initiative received a letter from UBC that the ministry wanted several research contracts "suspended immediately."
The contracts include the Alzheimer's Drug Therapy Initiative, which provides drugs to Alzheimer's patients to review their effectiveness, led out of the University of Victoria, and the Education for Quality Improvement in Patient Care project, which provides B.C. doctors with data on their prescribing habits and related research on best practices.
Prior to November 2010, Therapeutics Initiative was responsible for conducting all drug research that helps the government decide which drugs Pharmacare should cover. A new government drug-review policy accepts groups or individuals with connections to the pharmaceutical industry, if they declare the connection.
Therapeutics Initiative's funding and contracts were actually suspended as part of a Health Ministry announcement Sept. 6, the ministry confirmed Thursday. But the universities involved and the Therapeutics Initiative didn't officially hear about the suspension until letters were sent out this week and last.
"This news is quite fresh to us and we are talking as a team about how we can continue to function to serve the needs of patients through this," Dormuth said. "We haven't been told anything, it's very frustrating. ... Still, we are university-based researchers and you can count on us doing everything we can to keep the work going because it's important."
In a letter obtained by the Times Colonist, Barbara Walman, assistant deputy minister in the Health Ministry's pharmaceutical services division, wrote to UBC's comptroller on Sept. 19, telling him "that as a result of a review of certain contracts, the Ministry of Health hereby instructs you to immediately suspend work on the above-noted contracts pending the result of the investigation into them.
"Until that investigation is resolved, no contracts will be renewed or work is to continue on them," the letter says. "The Ministry of Health is aware that the contracts may not be completed at this time, and does not expect the final work produced as specified in the contracts to be delivered at this time."
On Sept. 6, B.C.'s health minister revealed that an investigation had started in May as a result of an anonymous tip to B.C.'s auditor general in March about alleged contracting irregularities and inappropriate grant practices at the ministry's pharmaceutical services division.
Five Health Ministry employees have been fired and two others suspended without pay. The ministry ended contracts worth $4 million with UVic and UBC but $1 million worth was later restored, and suspended drug-data access.
The Health Ministry effectively cut off the organization's research this summer when it denied access to government health and drug data. However, the organization has expected that access would soon be restored.
The ministry says the letters just formalized what's already happened.
"While we cannot speak to specifics, the contracts have not received or accessed data and payments have not been made to universities related to these contracts since the ministry suspended them in the summer," the Health Ministry said.
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