Funding restored for B.C. drug safety watchdogs; privacy breach probe continues

The B.C. government has restored contracts and funding for researchers at the University of Victoria and the University of B.C. following a year-long investigation into privacy breaches involving personal information.

UBC’s Therapeutics Initiative, which assesses drugs covered under B.C.’s PharmaCare program, and a UVic group studying Alzheimer’s disease lost access to health data and money in September 2012 as the Health Ministry investigated a privacy breach in its pharmaceutical services division.

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The ministry said it has improved its data privacy and security, allowing funding and data access to be restored.

Health Minister Terry Lake said it was unfortunate a year of research was lost, but security and privacy of data were paramount.

“I have always been a very big proponent of evidence-based decision-making, and having access to data and being able to do research that helps guide us in decision-making in health is extremely important, so I’m very relieved to be where we are today,” Lake said.

The ministry said it was implementing recommendations made by privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who slammed it for not having reasonable security in place to protect personal information, and consulting firm Deloitte, which reviewed data security and access.

The new measures include training for about 280 managers and executives, and an improved data privacy system to allow tracking of who is accessing data and for what reason.

Random audits are scheduled and this fall the ministry will require contractors and researchers using its data to participate in security and information management training.

Tuesday’s announcement marks the end of a fight between the ministry, which had blocked external access to its data, and researchers, who said they were innocent bystanders being prevented from performing vital research.

The suspended funding to the Therapeutics Initiative was worth $550,000 a year. The contract pays UBC to provide drug education to health professionals and to perform PharmaCare evaluations.

Therapeutics Initiative also receives $150,000 annually to conduct clinical drug evaluations for the Health Ministry. That funding was not halted.

“We are delighted that the suspension of our funding has ended and that we will be able to resume our research activities,” said Jim Wright, co-managing director of Therapeutics Initiative.

Wright said he was expecting funding to be restored. “There wasn’t any reason not to as we had done nothing wrong. Still, it was very worrying and anxiety provoking to be left in limbo like that.”

NDP Leader Adrian Dix said the restoration of funding is good news but that the Liberal government has been cutting the Therapeutics Initiative’s funding for years and should fully restore it.

UVic’s Alzheimer’s Drug Therapy Initiative provides drugs to Alzheimer’s patients as part of a review of clinical evidence to support PharmaCare coverage of three cholinesterase inhibitors for people affected by the disease.

Patients continued to receive the drugs over the past year but two of the study’s contracts were suspended. That work can now resume, Lake said.

UVic was not able to provide details Tuesday about what portion of funding or research was suspended. UVic’s overall contract with the ministry was worth $2.37 million.

Investigation of the privacy breach continues. At least seven Health Ministry staff have been fired since it began in May 2012. To date, the investigation has cost $3.6 million.

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