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'Dark days for public health' as top jobs remain unfilled; Critics blame the Conservatives for cutting posts' autonomy and salary

Federal government hasn't filled top doctor's job, 15 months later

 

(Ottawa Citizen, Dylan Robertson )

 

Canadians has been without a chief federal public health officer for 15 months, while a renowned federal microbiology lab has now gone six months without a leader.

 

Critics say the government's tardiness in filling the two key posts - the first vacated in 2013 by Dr. David Butler-Jones, the second held until earlier this year by Dr. Frank Plummer - is because the Conservatives have undercut the independence and salary of each role, making it difficult to attract the right candidates. But Health Canada officials say the department has been working hard to find replacements.

 

Butler-Jones stepped down in June 2013 as Canada's Chief Public Health Officer following a stroke. Filling in since has been deputy officer Dr. Gregory Taylor.

 

Plummer stepped down as head of the National Microbiology Laboratory in March after battling cancer, leaving it in the hands of executive director Steven Guercio.

 

The role of the Chief Public Health Officer, who leads the Public Health Agency of Canada, was designed after the deadline outbreak of SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003, and was meant to provide non-partisan, apolitical expertise to Canadians during national health crises.

 

Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett appointed Butler-Jones in 2004 when she was minister of state for public health. She now says the government's tight control of public scientists has likely made it impossible for find a qualified candidate.

 

"From the day the Conservatives took over, the chief public health officer doesn't seem able to fill his duties in way it had been designed," she said. "Who would want to do this job, if you're going to be undercut at every turn?" In the midst of the 2008 listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 people, the Canadian Medical Association Journal slammed the federal government for making the agriculture minister the lead public face for the government's response, rather than giving that role to Butler-Jones.

 

Butler-Jones was much more visible the following year, during the H1N1 influenza crisis and immunization campaign, providing frequent briefings to journalists and urging the public to get vaccinated.

 

The government has had 15 months to find a replacement for Butler-Jones, but even if he hadn't stepped down early, his term would have expired this coming Tuesday.

 

Some worry the lack of a chief public health spokesman is hurting Canada internationally. The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting Thursday to discuss the Ebola outbreak, deeming it "a threat to international peace and security." Such discussions call for a public health officer, according to Dr. Richard Schabas, Ontario's former chief medical officer, who now works with the Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Health Unit.

 

"Ebola almost certainly will not come to Canada, but obviously the chief public health officer is the one you'd like to see on the front page of the newspapers telling people what the risks are; and if the risk is small that's a very credible message," he said. No cases of Ebola have been confirmed in Canada.

 

Schabas said he's heard the salary currently being offered is "not competitive." The firm hiring Butler-Jones's replacement would not disclose the salary range, nor would the Privy Council Office or Health Canada, which referred questions to the Prime Minister's Office. It did not respond to a request for that information Friday. Schabas also says "it doesn't have the independence a job like that should have." He said it was "fairly well-known" that Health Canada kept close tabs on Butler-Jones.

 

U.S. public health officials briefed Congress last week on the threat of Ebola. At a parliamentary debate last Monday on the issue, Bennett said Canadians also deserve to hear from a Canadian chief public health officer.

 

"We must be hearing directly from medical people, not from politicians, if we are going to expect Canadians to have confidence in our public health system in Canada," she said.

 

So far, Taylor has briefed opposition MPs on Ebola, but hasn't made a public statement.

 

Health Minister Rona Ambrose's office said in a written statement that Taylor "is doing a phenomenal job.

 

"We have every confidence in him. He has demonstrated strong leadership on pressing public health issues, such as H5N1 and Ebola," said Michael Bolkenius.

 

Meanwhile, the 500-strong microbiology lab in Winnipeg has been hailed worldwide for its role in an experimental Ebola vaccine that reportedly cured two Americans last month. But without a director, Bennett says that lab's work is becoming political fodder.

 

"Seeing the Minister of Culture and Heritage running a press conference in Winnipeg about the vaccine, I thought: Really? What has happened? It's just so disappointing."

 

Like the posting for top doctor, the lab head job offers little independence, says NDP Health critic Libby Davies. When it was posted in April, the salary ranged from $132,600 to $231,900.

 

"The posting was buried on the website and the pay scale seemed to be not commensurate with the position," Davies said.

 

The deadline for the posting - which remains unfilled - was extended. It has also drawn criticism for not requiring bilingualism or a PhD, while stressing experience in representing organizations and managing program delivery.

 

"There's a concern in the scientific community that it's doing to be someone downgraded as an administrative role, instead of trying to attract a top scientist," says Davies.

 

Health Canada said in a statement it's "concluding a meritbased staffing process to fill this position" and has a shortlist.

 

Bennett says even after both positions are filled, she fears the government will likely put partisan politics ahead of clear communication.

 

"These are dark days for public health."

 

Twitter.com/@withfilesfrom

 

via Ottawa Citizen

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