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

Port Alberni receives Smart Communities grant for new online platform

Online database will link local volunteers with non-profit and charity groups

B.C. Legions in need of young members to continue aiding veterans into the future

Lest we forget what thousands of men and women did to fight for Canada’s freedoms – but without new membership, many Legion chapters face dwindling numbers

Port Alberni council meetings to take place in the afternoon

Mayor says the change is on a “trial” basis

Cyclist killed in Port Alberni

Collision occurred on 10th Avenue at Dunbar Street

Accident closes 10th Avenue at Dunbar in Port Alberni

Emergency personnel investigating a serious accident involving a cyclist

Port Alberni remembers

Annual Remembrance Day ceremonies take place in the Alberni Valley

Vancouver Island remembers

Important stories shared as Islanders salute those who made the greatest sacrifice

Pot company hopes to replace jobs lost in mill closure in B.C. town

About 200 workers lost their jobs when the Tolko sawmill in Merritt shuttered in 2016

Funding announcement promises to drive business innovation in B.C.

Minister is scheduled to make the announcement at the Penticton campus of Okanagan College

Vancouver Island mom warns of candy-luring incident

A Courtenay mother is speaking out after a man was reported to… Continue reading

Ticats destroy Lions 48-8 in CFL East Division semifinal

Wally Buono’s last game as B.C. coach ends in disappointment

Olympic decision time for Calgarians in 2026 plebiscite

Calgary’s ‘88 legacy is considered among the most successful in Olympic Games history

Canadians mark Remembrance Day, 100 years since end of First World War

The sombre crowd stood in near-silence as it reflected on the battles that ended a century ago, and those that have come since

B.C. VIEWS: Seniors home worker discrimination finally ending

Health Minister Adrian Dix righting a serious wrong

Most Read