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'What are they trying to hide?': B.C.'s refusal to release hospital ejection data concerns advocate

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A month after they announced plans were underway to eject hundreds of hospital patients to make room for a potential wave of COVID-19 and influenza patients, British Columbia’s government is fighting to conceal how many have been sent away.

On Sept. 28, the health minister announced 1,300 patients were earmarked for care “in community” with another 500 to go to care homes, and blindsided stakeholders immediately replied that they were “not sure if it's attainable” given the critical staffing shortages.

When CTV News tried to find out if any space had been found for them, the ministry of health provided a long email reiterating that the patients didn’t require hospital-level care in the first place, but not answering the question of how many of the 1,800 had been ejected.

After several subsequent requests for the information that were not acknowledged, a senior public affairs officer wrote, “You will need to submit a Freedom of Information Request for this information.”

A 'PATTERN' OF SECRECY

The request did not include any personal or sensitive medical information, and the watchdog group that monitors government disclosure and use of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act denounced the decision not to release information in the public interest.

“They are weaponizing freedom of information,” said Jason Woywada, executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. “They’re using it as a scapegoat and a shield in order to say ‘oh, it’s not us, it’s the act.’ These are politicians that are making these decisions, they can choose to proactively release the information.”

He pointed to this as yet another example of a government the outgoing premier once claimed was “the most transparent jurisdiction in North America” as anything but. The official opposition echoed that criticism, pointing out it’s become standard practice for the current New Democrat administration.

“I'm not surprised that it's difficult to get information out of this government,” said BC Liberal health critic, Shirley Bond. “We've seen a pattern that's developed, we certainly saw it through the pandemic, where people wanted and deserve more information and literally had to fight to get it.”

FEW BEDS AVAILABLE

In an email, the ministry of health insisted that “patients are only transferred when we can ensure appropriate supports are available to them,” and pointing out “patients should only be in hospital when they need acute care.”

But nurses and care home operators alike had pointed out that if there was capacity at those facilities, they’d already be there, and subsequent efforts to find room for the 500 patients who need long-term care only turned up a fraction of the spaces required.

“There are empty beds, but there are not the staff to look after them if people were to be placed in those beds,” explained BC Care Providers Association president, Terry Lake, who says only 50 staffed beds were vacant province-wide. “The rest are not able to go home, and families are not able to provide the care they need.”

He said if a surge of COVID-19 or influenza patients do inundate hospitals, the province will have to be clear about what that means for the patients forced out to make room for very ill people.

“If we want to place more people in long-term care under the current situation of staff challenges, it would have to be accepted that there were fewer staff looking after more people,” said Lake.

Bond added that it’s time for the minister to speak up so the public can “see the plan so that we know that seniors are going to be well taken care of and hospitals have the capacity they need in the event of a surge this winter.”

For Woywada, the concern is that the close-to-the-vest policies of this government are undermining trust while creating a combative atmosphere when democracies everywhere are increasingly fragile under the pressure of misinformation and hyper-partisanship.

“It speaks to a lack of transparency in this government, it speaks to them vilifying reporters trying to get information – we’ve been seeing this consistently,” he said.

“You really have to ask why the government doesn’t want to be proactively transparent about this: What are they trying to hide?”

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