Cpl. Don Wrigglesworth of the Penticton RCMP holds a syringe as emergency workers put an overdose victim on a stretcher at a Government Street house. Mark Brett/Western News file photo

Overdose data policy may not comply with FOI law, expert says

But B.C. Coroners likely ‘most transparent jurisdiction in the country,’ according to spokesperson

Scrubbing the number of overdose deaths in small towns last year from public releases has some science behind it, but experts say public bodies are likely taking the wrong approach.

Last week, Black Press successfully advocated for the release of preliminary figures of total overdose deaths in Penticton for 2017, but it came with some resistance from the B.C. Coroners Service.

Related: Penticton’s overdose death rate most likely tops Kelowna’s

The provincial service relented amid interviews with an advocacy group and the B.C. Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, a quasi-judicial body on access to information and protection of privacy.

Daryl Meyers, executive director of Pathways Addictions Resource Centre in Penticton, said she is of two minds on the data release policy.

“Respecting privacy, absolutely, that’s number one of our priorities,” she said.

On the other hand, Penticton does not have a publicly funded residential treatment centre, which Meyers said she would like to see in town — though she added it is not likely anytime soon.

“That’s why numbers like that are important to get, because I would hope that we would be able to leverage and get more services here.”

Related: Penticton group, IH eyeing overdose prevention site

At the heart of the issue is the mosaic effect — when a number released isn’t large enough, data believed to be anonymized can identify, for example, an overdose victim.

On that note, Brad Weldon, OIPC’s acting deputy commissioner, was quick to point out that the privacy protection falls in the same rulebook as access to information.

“They just mean you need to run through a three-part test that all of the public bodies will know to determine whether or not the disclosure of that information is an unreasonable invasion of that third-party’s privacy.”

That three-part test effectively asks if there would be an unreasonable invasion of privacy (such as a psychiatric evaluation) and if there is valid public interest in the information (subjects of public debate, public health concerns).

Related: Nine suspected fatal overdoses over five days

And the Coroners Service formerly erred on the side of transparency. In fact, the service used to disclose the name of deceased, and in 2017, a Coroners Service report showed one person died in Vernon in January.

But when it comes to weighing personal information against the public interest specifically at the Coroners Service, Weldon said the OIPC doesn’t tend to weigh in, as the Coroners Act has its own clause about disclosing private information.

In B.C., the number five is typically assumed by public bodies as the threshold for de-identifying data — cited by the Coroners Service, B.C. Ambulance and Interior Health — but Weldon took some issue with that approach.

Deciding whether or not to release data, he said, should include factors like the total number of deaths compared to those caused by overdose, as well as the size of the community and the breadth of the time frame being considered.

Related: Penticton hospital fourth busiest in IH region for opioid overdoses

“It’s quite a bit removed from the original principles that gave rise to the number five, and it could be the number four is more appropriate, or it could be the number 10 is more appropriate,” Weldon said.

“The concern that I have is that when you’re applying a blanket rule and you’re using it as essentially a proxy for going through the test, then you’re not complying with FIPPA.”

Coroners Service spokesperson Andy Watson said the service is currently developing a data disclosure policy to clarify what can and can’t be released.

“I should also point out for context, I believe we are the most transparent jurisdiction in the country with regard to the surveillance information with illicit drug data,” he said.

“Any emerging trends are shared with health authorities as we spot them — we would also work with health authorities to distribute public alerts as and when required if there was a public concern for safety or a new trend emerging.”

Related: South Okanagan front lines workers say comments add insult to tragedy


@dustinrgodfrey

dustin.godfrey@pentictonwesternnews.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Used election signs could serve as emergency shelters, candidate says

Langley council hopeful wants to build one-person foul weather shelters for homeless

Langley player to compete in first NCAA basketball tournament in Canada

Former Brookswood star Louise Forsyth to play in Vancouver Showcase

VIDEO: Scouts in Langley learn how to communicate during emergencies

Weekend event at Camp McLean part of worldwide Jamboree On The Air and Jamboree On The Internet

Halloween on horseback

Langley riders club celebrates the season

Canada Post strikes leaves small shops in the lurch as holidays approach: CFIB

Rotating strikes began in Victoria, Edmonton, Halifax and Windsor

‘Violent’ B.C. man wanted on Canada-wide warrant could be in Lower Mainland

RCMP say the man has likely made his way to the Lower Mainland or another community

New monitoring of vessel noise impact on endangered whales announced

Federal government to monitor underwater ship and mammal noise in B.C.’s Salish Sea

Three men charged in Alberta man’s murder will go straight to trial

The three men are charged with first degree murder in the death a 20-year-old from Alberta.

Aldergrove Kodiaks take narrow loss to Wolf Pack

Kodiaks took a 4-5 loss in the dying minutes of the third period against PJHL’s leading team

Vancouver cops, four-legged pals pose for police dog calendar

Proceeds go to fighting cancer and helping sick kids

Liberals write off $6.3 billion in loans as part of money never to be collected

That includes student loans and a $2.6 billion write off that came through Export Development Canada

Trudeau, McKenna to announce compensation for federal carbon plan

Provinces that don’t have a carbon price of at least $20 per tonne of emissions will have Ottawa’s plan forced on them

UPDATE: American rapper killed in skydiving accident

Man, 34, dies in skydiving accident Saturday near Westwold, between Vernon and Kelowna

Most Read