Ombudsman Annual Report Looks at Medication Costs in Long-term Care, Discipline Panels in Correctional Centres, and Municipal Issues

The 2019 annual reports for Saskatchewan’s Ombudsman and Public Interest Disclosure Commissioner, Mary McFadyen, were tabled yesterday. This past year, over 3,800 people contacted her Office seeking assistance. “Some of the people who contacted us were frustrated because they felt the provincial or municipal government officials they were dealing with didn’t understand the problem or were not being fair. We were able to listen and provide an impartial review of their concerns – and if we found they were treated unfairly, we helped get an appropriate resolution.”

In 2019, Ombudsman Saskatchewan was able to help vulnerable populations, including inmates and long-term care residents. For example, “Perry” and “Paula” said that when their father moved into a long-term care home, the cost of his medicine went up considerably: on average, from $45/month to $113/month. The Ombudsman investigated whether the Health Authority was reasonably managing the medication costs residents were being charged. For safety reasons, staff of long-term care homes do not dispense medications to residents unless they are purchased from the pharmacy holding the pharmacy services contract for the facility. The Ombudsman found that this makes residents a captive market. The Saskatchewan Health Authority is responsible for ensuring these costs are at least competitive with community pharmacies. McFadyen found the Authority needed to improve its pharmacy procurement and fee structure agreements to guarantee reasonable medication costs for residents.

Her Office also investigated the inmate discipline system in provincial correctional centres. Under legislation, inmates are entitled to a full and fair hearing if they are charged with disciplinary offences such as fighting, engaging in gang activity, threatening people, or trying to escape. When charged, they are brought before a panel to determine whether they are guilty and if so, what sanctions will be applied. McFadyen found that several aspects of the system were not being conducted fairly. For example, inmates were often not given enough information about the charges beforehand in order to prepare for the hearing, they could not call other inmates to testify on their behalf, and they could not question staff witnesses. She found that the discipline panels composed of correctional facility staff members often had to decide between the testimony of inmates and their own co-workers and supervisors, making it difficult, if not impossible, to be objective. Also, since sanctions were applied as soon as the panel made its decision, inmates saw the legislated appeal process as a waste of time. By the time they won their appeal, they had already served the sanctions. McFadyen made nine recommendations aimed at making sure inmates could properly present their cases, addressing bias and the appearance of bias of panel members, and implementing a training program for all panel members to help them conduct fair hearings.

Ombudsman Saskatchewan continued to receive complaints about municipalities. Investigations this year focussed on councils giving public notice before making certain decisions like setting their remuneration or closing roads, and dealing with allegations of council member misconduct. McFadyen noted that many council members still do not understand the conflict of interest rules, and some even think that the Ombudsman is making up rules. This was highlighted by a SARM resolution passed at its midyear convention in November 2019 by an 87% majority – that the Ombudsman had “appeared to adopt a ‘grey area’ concept of a conflict of interest” and should be “made to adhere to the definition of conflict of interest as it appears in The Municipalities Act.”
As Public Interest Disclosure Commissioner, McFadyen’s Office received more calls than in 2018. In 2019, McFadyen’s Office received 17 inquires and 8 disclosures of allegations of wrongdoing. She noted that the Office continues to receive anonymous disclosures, which means that public sector organizations still have work to do to make sure their employees know about the protections available under The Public Interest Disclosure Act. She also noted that the Saskatchewan Health Authority and the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency came under the Commissioner’s jurisdiction, meaning 40,000 more public sector employees are now protected.

As McFadyen’s Office continues its work in 2020, like many other offices, she and her staff are working from home in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They remain committed to receiving and responding to complaints and continuing to serve the Saskatchewan public. During these unusual times, it is more important than ever that the public have access to an independent office that can listen to people’s concerns about government services and refer appropriately or review objectively to help keep people from falling through the cracks.
Both reports are available at The Ombudsman and Public Interest Disclosure Commissioner is an officer of the Legislative Assembly who operates under The Ombudsman Act, 2012 and The Public Interest Disclosure Act. Her Office promotes and protects fairness and integrity in the design and delivery of government services.

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