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Is the Government Gagging BC's Drug Safety Scientists?

We have one of the best drug safety programs in the world. It tracks all prescription use in the province and saves us $500 million a year. Yet the B.C. Liberals have halted access to its research and fired eight of its watchdogs. Did PharmaNet do its research too well?
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Ron Mattson
Last September, the Ministry of Health fired Victoria's Ron Mattson, alleging that he, a project manager with the Pharmaceutical Services Division, improperly distributed patient data Carlo Ricci
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We have one of the best drug safety programs in the world. It tracks all prescription use in the province and saves us $500 million a year. Yet the B.C. Liberals have halted access to its research and fired eight of its watchdogs. Did PharmaNet do its research too well?

After half a lifetime working for the B.C. Ministry of Health, Ron Mattson, 59, was invited into his boss's office, fired, and escorted out of the building.

He's seldom had a full night's sleep since that morning last September, and he remains unsure why he was fired from his job managing pharmaceutical data and research from the provincial government's PharmaNet database. According to government investigators, he failed to protect the confidentiality of a specific set of records, but the data in question was anonymous and never even left his office, says Mattson, who is suing the government for wrongful dismissal and defamation of character.

Dr. Malcolm Maclure was sacked by the ministry in similar fashion. After two decades of award-winning scientific work for the ministry, Maclure, 60, who trained at Oxford and Harvard and holds UBC's prestigious chair in patient safety, received a phone call while overseas last summer informing him the ministry had removed him from his duties supervising research using PharmaNet data. The news seemed "difficult to believe," he recalls. But sure enough, his BlackBerry account was terminated, and a couple of days later his wife's email chimed with confirmation that he was amongst a group of alleged drug data violators purged while under investigation. Like Mattson, Maclure describes the charges against him as "vague." He has also sued the government for wrongful dismissal and defamation of character.

Dr. Bill Warburton, too, was fired in much the same way. An economist who used PharmaNet data to investigate the cost effectiveness of various pharmaceuticals commonly prescribed within B.C.'s billion-dollar government-funded drug plan, Warburton saw his contract terminated with scant explanation. Soon afterward, his wife, Dr. Rebecca Warburton-a University of Victoria health economist who, with Maclure, directed pharmaceutical research for the ministry-was fired, as were four others inside the government with access to drug data: Bob Hart, David Scott, Ramsay Hamdi, and Roderick MacIsaac. Rebecca Warburton is preparing to sue the government for abusing her reputation and inflicting pain on her family. Mac­Isaac, a researcher evaluating the safety and effectiveness of B.C.'s stop-smoking program, committed suicide in January.

"We figured that someone in the ministry got their wires crossed," Bill Warburton says about what started as an obscure misunderstanding but has ignited into a threat to province-wide medical safety. But after eight months of growing financial and emotional distress, he now believes he and his wife are ensnared in something far larger than a petty squabble over data management.

Alan Cassels, a UVic pharmaceutical policy analyst, sees distressing implications in the firings. "Most of the enterprise of drug policy research has ground to a halt in B.C.," he says. "Many of the research leaders within the government are gone." The affected scientists were all closely involved in staging major studies of physician prescribing practices, and the safety of a wide array of drugs, he notes. MacIsaac's work, for example, was to assess smoking cessation drugs including Champix, which PharmaCare began paying for in September 2011. Warburton was investigating antipsychotic drugs that are often used with little medical supervision in old folks' homes and are attracting increasing scrutiny. Mattson and Maclure were deeply involved with a major study of Alzheimer drugs that PharmaCare is funding pending the studies' outcome. Maclure was also investigating whether physician prescribing patterns are influenced by drug companies: in recent scientific publications he has probed the medical basis for the vast sums spent by the B.C. government and B.C. patients on drugs prescribed for diabetes, depression, and respiratory disease.

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