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B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake said he is still trying to find a way to release more information about the firings, but is constrained by privacy laws and a wrongful dismissal lawsuit.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake needs to call an independent inquiry into the firing of eight ministry workers because the ongoing scandal has undermined the public's confidence in the safety of prescription medications, the fired workers say.

Speaking in a collective voice for the first time since they were fired in 2012, seven of the employees – along with the sister of a fired researcher who killed himself – said the mass dismissal interrupted their independent research to ensure quality in prescription drugs, a program they say has saved taxpayers millions of dollars annually.

"The inquiry should seek to understand, and to remedy, how a painstakingly built program to bring evidence to prescribing could be undone so quickly and, based on the government's own public statements, mistakenly," they say in an open letter to Mr. Lake. "It should recommend how to restore public confidence that the government is fully engaged in ensuring the safety and effectiveness of prescription medicines."

The provincial government has apologized for the firings and acknowledged it overreacted to a data breach involving patient information. An independent review could not determine who was responsible for the firings or why they occurred.

The health ministry staff and contractors were helping an independent agency called the Therapeutics Initiative develop evaluations of the effectiveness and safety of prescription drugs. The information was used to determine if those pharmaceuticals should be eligible for coverage under the publicly funded PharmaCare program. Last week, Mr. Lake said he is still trying to find a way to release more information about what happened, but is constrained by privacy laws and a wrongful dismissal lawsuit.

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Mike de Jong said a public inquiry would be too expensive, costing "millions upon millions of dollars."

"The desire to ensure that employees are being treated fairly and that there are proper processes in place to guarantee that fact is not, in my view, dependent upon a public inquiry," Mr. de Jong told reporters.

In their letter, the workers dismissed the argument that B.C.'s privacy laws are a barrier to an independent inquiry, noting that the B.C. Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act excludes public servants from privacy protection in matters concerning accountability for official actions.

They also argue that the cost would be recouped if the inquiry led to a complete renewal of the government's commitment to scrutinizing prescription drugs. Although they are not calling specifically for a full public inquiry, they said the review should be independent, with the authority to call witnesses under oath, and provide funding to cover the legal costs of participants.

"We share the concern about additional costs," they wrote, but said the province would benefit from better health care and lower costs if it can fully restore its drug research efforts. "Our work … enabled BC PharmaCare to improve prescribing safety and save over $100-million in the past 20 years by not covering drugs that were later confirmed in other jurisdictions to have caused harm to patients and massive wastage of expenditures."

The workers were suspended and then fired, and left under a cloud for three years after the government said the data breach was so serious that it warranted an RCMP investigation. However, internal e-mails show the RCMP probe, although still not formally closed, never went far.

One of the researchers, Roderick MacIsaac, killed himself after being interrogated by government officials and fired just two days before the end of his student co-op term. His sister Linda Kayfish signed the letter on his behalf. The other workers are Ramsay Hamdi, Robert Hart, Malcolm Maclure, Rob Mattson, David Scott, and Rebecca and William Warburton.