Six fired, one dead, no answers

This post was written by Alan Cassels and first appeared in Focus magazine online in early March. The full version is here. Alan was one of the creators of the Selling Sickness, or disease mongering idea. His recent book is “Seeking Sickness: Medical Screening and the Misguided Hunt for Disease. There is an editorial comment below.

A year ago this month – March 28, 2012, to be exact. British Colomubia’s office of the auditor general told the B.C. Ministry of Health about a complaint someone made about the way contracts were being awarded and how research was being conducted within the ministry’s Pharmaceutical Services Division (PSD).

It’s time the public had some answers since this is not just a personal tale of intrigue and tragedy for those involved – but a story that has directly affected the way we assess and monitor pharmaceutical drugs in British Columbia (B.C.), the rest of Canada and the rest of the World.

The fastest growing budget in the Ministry

Here’s what we do know in a nutshell: Pharmaceutical Services Division (PSD) is in charge of paying for medications for B.C. citizens, medications that cost about $100 million per month, the fastest growing budget in the ministry. At the time, there was a small evaluation unit within PSD – a staff of half a dozen economists and data analysts plus one position shared by two academic researchers, for facilitating drug evaluations by outside researchers. These weren’t lightweight researchers: both had PhDs, one was a world-leading Harvard-trained epidemiologist and the other a health economist.

The unit’s job was to help design and sponsor evaluations to determine if drugs paid for by B.C. Pharmacare were effective and safe. In the course of this work, the evaluations might show that some medications are ineffective or worse: they might sometimes kill or injure people.

The Ministry of Health started investigating the complaint in April 2012 by conducting staff interviews and reviewing contracts. The ministry said the formal investigation was initiated to “examine financial controls, contracting, data management and employee/contractor relationships.”

Employees suspended, contracts cancelled

Then a handful of employees were sent letters saying they were suspended without pay, but not told the specific reasons why. Other researchers had their data access suspended. Contractors were fired and contracts cancelled.

In June, while the province’s minister of health was announcing nearly $40 million in new drug research money for B.C. at a large biotechnology conference in Boston, his staff back in Victoria were carrying out what some called a “Kafkaesque” series of interrogations. People were on trial, not knowing the charges or who was doing the accusing.

All drug safety evaluations carried out by the Therapeutics Initiative (TI) were halted. Funded by the provincial government, the TI has been providing an independent voice on pharmaceuticals since the mid-1990s and has gained an international reputation for its meticulous and thorough drug reviews.

Without these reviews, many commonly used drugs, such as those for cholesterol-lowering, heartburn, smoking cessation or stroke prevention were left with no monitoring activities.

Deeply troubling … but no explanation

In early September, the day after her appointment as minister of health, Dr. Margaret MacDiarmid and her deputy minister Graham Whitmarsh, called a news conference in the legislature. They announced that four employees had already been fired and three more were suspended without pay. They didn’t name the employees and the explanations made vague and confusing references to privacy concerns, inappropriate conduct and potential conflicts of interest.

Two others were fired later. The seventh in the unit has sued for constructive dismissal. One of the fired employees, a co-op student, had three days left in his term. He wasn’t able to complete his PhD – an evaluation of smoking cessation drugs – because the government cut off his access to data. And he’ll never complete it. He’s dead. (His death is still under investigation by the coroner.) Some of the fired employees are working through their unions to address their grievances or have brought suits against the government.

In media reports, the minister was “deeply troubled” and let it be known that the RCMP had been called. As the months rolled by, no one could say what was happening. No one knew, and/or no one would talk. Despite intense media curiosity, secrecy continues to be the order of the day.

When I asked for confirmation of the people doing the investigation, the ministry spokesperson wrote: “We have not and will not confirm any of the individuals involved in this investigation.” Calls to the coroner and the RCMP are answered in the same way: “An investigation is underway.”

Independent observers of this situation are stunned. There has never been a scandal like this in B.C. A big part of our provincial drug safety evaluation apparatus has ground to a halt, and so things must be very serious. But no one is saying what is really going on.

BC voters will soon go to the polls

With polling day imminent, voters deserve to know one thing: What sort of crimes did these employees do to warrant the near total shutdown of drug safety evaluation in British Columbia? Canadians have lost a valuable source of drug safety information from B.C., so we all want to know – what exactly is going on?

Editorial Comment

Voters deserve to know” – but will they get to hear? Alan’s article appeared in Focus Online. We are in a world where there is a real McCarthyism in American medicine with publishers scared to publish, doctors scared to make connections happening right in front of their own eyes, and even government health departments becoming a threat to the wellbeing of citizens. This is why it is increasingly important to generate independent data in forums such as

Harper’s publisher John MacArthur recently wrote: “You should be greatly concerned by the notion that press freedom nowadays hangs not by a stout cord between publisher and reader, but rather by a more tenuous thread connecting advertisers and the media.” And he would know: Pfizer withdrew “between $400,000 and a million dollars” worth of ads from Harper’s because of an unflattering piece on depression medication. His magazine got by, but MacArthur is quick to point out that many others wouldn’t survive such a blow.

In contrast, when on December 7th 1959, the most famous hearings on the Drug Industry, the Kefauver Hearings began, the front pages of American newspapers the following day were full of headlines about mark-ups of 1000% on the prices of drugs, and they later carried stories about fraudulent advertising and a range of sleazy marketing techniques. All of Kefauver’s team were surprised. They had held comparable hearings on price-fixing in other industries but had not received any coverage. One of them noted that:

at some times the press is more free than at others. The crucial point in this case was that ethical drug companies don’t advertise prescription products directly to the layman through newspapers. That meant that since there was no pressure from advertisers, the papers could report whatever they wanted to“.

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Pharmaceutical companies have hijacked healthcare in America, and the results are life-threatening.


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  1. Your reference to Harper magazine reminded me of something which I found disturbing regarding freedom of the press. I used to find lots of information on the dubious practices of Danish pharma company ‘Lundbeck’ in the Copenhagen Post; articles like these: ‘Lundbeck in hot water’ and ‘pill company behind depression website’. I looked one day and all the information was gone. It transpired that in late 2011 Lundbeck took out a corporate subscription and also receives ‘journalistic support’ from the Copenhagen Post. Now only positive references are made to Lundbeck.

    This article entitled ‘Danish sperm bank abandoning home market’ states “We cannot ensure that a donor is not used for more than 12 children….It is like asking Lundbeck [a maker of anti-depressants] to ensure that doctors do not over-prescribe medication….” This implies to me, that not only is Lundbeck getting a spot of ‘free’ advertising here, it’s also implying that any problems with their drugs is actually the fault of the doctor. Nice for Lundbeck but not so good for the medical profession or for the Lundbeck victims, such as my son Shane. Sad.

  2. Being in the alternative news business here in B.C. for the past 15 years covering an array of corporate and government crimes and corruption I was quite surprised by this article. I never heard about it before and I’m wondering just how much coverage of it has appeared in our mainstream media.

    While I am a great admirer of Senator Joe McCarthy and his efforts to expose the Communist/Zionist conspiracy that was taking over America back in the 30s and 40s I would hardly use the term “McCarthyism” to describe the fears that are now prevalent throughout western media when it comes to exposing anything indirectly or directly related to the machinations of the same element that McCarthy fought and died trying to educate the world about. These are the same people who now own and manipulate the pharmaceutical industry, the media and political agendas of all the western nations with the possible exception of Italy and Iceland. It’s my guess that something dangerously controversial was going on in the backrooms of the B.C. legislature that precipitated this current blackout of information.

  3. Whistleblower claims Swedish government was bribed to approve Prozac

  4. Mr Topham’s views are offensive to me. I am neither a communist nor a Jew. I am surprised to see his views in this blog as, in my opinion, they do not add to or illuminate any part of the blog. At best they are meretricious nonsense and at worst paranoid and racist propaganda.

    What is the moderator of this blog thinking of?

  5. David_Healy says:

    As the moderator of this blog, I clearly have to comment. The McCarthyism reference might well in some respects be wrong. But the term popularly now refers to a period in American history when any hints that a person thought anything was less than perfect in the United States or any questioning of the status quo was liable to lead to them being branded as un-American or communist. Just as in Eastern Germany, except the other way around in that case, this led a lot of people to keep quiet about their views, and also to fail to come to the defense of others they should have stood up for.

    There is a similar tyranny within medicine today, and particularly within psychiatry, and especially in the United States. The atmosphere of fear is palpable. Anyone questioning the status quo in this case is liable to be dismissed as a Scientologist.

    For the record, I don’t think we get these outcomes because of conspiracies – we get them because some aspect of the system is not working the way it should. As Andrew Witty said recently in the BMJ “the 100,000 people who work for GSK are just like you, right? They’re normal people. Many of them are doctors”

    This was also the case in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. People who end up doing terrible things are just like you and me and some of them are doctors.

    • As one of the token Yankees on this blog, I have to say the analogy to McCarthyism is spot-on. I can remember as a kid being told by teachers that there was nothing necessarily wrong with civil rights for “Negroes”, but I had to understand that the Communists were just using this for their own purposes. So that Martin Luther King guy? Keep your distance. He is not a responsible leader. This never made much sense to me; it just made me curious about those Communists.

      So often what I hear from people inside the mental health system is similar: what I’m saying is not exactly wrong, but it’s irresponsible even if it’s right. If I manage to escape the six-drug cocktail and the life built around my brain disease, that’s fine. But I need to keep quiet about it, for some undefined greater good. And if others don’t find a way out, and go under, they in some sense are collateral damage that has to be accepted for that same elusive greater good. What the hell! Where is this “vast majority” who are supposedly being helped so much in the current drugs-first, people-last system? And if it’s such a wonderful, life-saving system, why is it so fragile that it has to be protected from the power of even one cranky question?

      I’m hoping maybe the arrogant cluelessness of the psychiatric establishment itself in rolling out the new DSM-5 guidelines will help get the ball rolling on the revolt we need. At least Allen Frances, the extremely mainstream doc who chaired the DSM-4 committee, is getting a lot of press for his warnings of the “massive over-diagnosis and harmful over-medication” that DSM-5 will bring. He’s hardly a revolutionary — but just the idea that there might ever be some harm in being medicated is revolutionary enough for now.

  6. Well said….the moderator…
    Clearly, then, the above quote from the, man at the helm, of normality, doesn’t quite know his normal from his abnormal……just like me, just like doctors, we are all normal…..
    So, in that case, Mr. Normal, looking after his 100,000 employees who are also doctors and who are so normal …..why have you let us be abnormal….
    I like Peter Hitchens, he stands no nonsense. He is normal, stronger than most, an authoritive author. He is always talking about Mr. Slippery, our Prime Minister.
    He is not afraid to speak the truth.
    Mr. Normal has surpassed Mr. Slippery…..
    If the little children, or even the bigger children, knew what Mr. Normal and Mr. Slippery were doing to them, then we would have the children running the ‘shots'; not taking them…….

  7. The analogy to McCarthyism is apt. Arthur Topham’s reference to a Communist/Zionist conspiracy as though it were a fact is objectionable as anti-Semitic.

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