Friday, November 26, 2010

Government fumbled drinking-driving changes

First the solicitor general, in charge of road safety, tries to convince the public that a little drinking and driving isn't so bad.
Then police reveal that roadside breathalyzer devices in the province - already used to impose licence suspensions on several hundred thousand British Columbians - were badly calibrated. Innocent people likely suffered roadside suspensions and further penalties.
The Liberals' changes to drinking and driving laws have turned into a mess.
Blame two factors.
First, a lack of honesty about the real goals of the changes, which give police power to impose much tougher penalties on drivers without laying impaired driving charges.
Even if a driver hasn't downed enough to blow over .08, the legal definition for impaired driving, police can now impose serious penalties. Blow over .05 and, for a first offence, you lose your licence for three days, have your car impounded and face about $600 in fines and fees.
The government pitched the changes, which took effect Sept. 20, as an effort to improve road safety.
That was partly true. The tougher penalties for people who blew between .05 and .08 make the consequences of being a little impaired much more serious. (That used to bring a 24-hour suspension.)
But the government was also looking for a way to penalize people without laying impaired driving charges under the Criminal Code.
Drivers could and did plead not guilty to those charges and fight them in court. About one-quarter of provincial court time is taken up with impaired charges. The government wanted to save money by taking that option away.
The measures worked. Bars and restaurants reported a 15 to 30 per cent drop in business once the new rules were in place.
That prompted Solicitor General Rich Coleman to encourage a little light drinking and driving. People had got it wrong, he said. "They can go in and have a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and still leave and be OK."
Coleman's advice is simply wrong. A couple of Calgary Herald journalists tested the B.C. limits with the help of the Calgary police department. The woman, who was small, had two glasses of wine and a meal over a couple of hours and blew .062.
Following Coleman's bad advice could be disastrous, in so many ways.
The other big concern was with justice. The new penalties could be imposed by a single police officer. Any appeals were not through the courts and came after the penalty was served.
Given that. you would think the government would accept a responsibility to ensure citizens' rights were protected.
It didn't. The standard for impaired under the Criminal Code is .08 blood alcohol content. But the machines are calibrated to signal fail at 0.1, to allow for a margin of error, which the manufacturers' acknowledge.
But the devices had been set to signal warning - bringing the licence suspension, vehicle impoundment and fines - at .05, with no margin for error.
Until the traffic safety committee of the B.C. Association of Police Chiefs said "recent" RCMP tests showed the roadside devices weren't accurate. Drivers might have been wrongly penalized. The 2,200 devices would be reset to .06 to allow a margin of error.
But about 170 people have a week have faced sanctions based on the faulty breathalyzer tests since Sept. 20. And about 35,000 people a year have been hit with 24-hour suspensions - based on defective machines.
What's most alarming is that the injustice wasn't identified by the solicitor general or the attorney general. Only a subcommittee of the B.C. Association of Police Chiefs protected the rights of citizens.
So we have a government in favour of a little drinking and driving, while bringing in tough penalties for drivers who haven't actually broken the law.
Drinking drivers have been kept off the road. But what a big mess has been made in stumbling toward that goal.
Footnote: Meanwhile, the government has reduced the penalties for driving without a licence or while suspended. Those offences use to result in vehicle impoundments of 30 to 90 days, but too many people just abandoned their cars. A first offence now brings a seven-day vehicle impoundment.

Editorial: Liberals cave to Big Pharma

Today's Times Colonist editorial:

"The last act in a nasty vendetta has finally played out. Premier Gordon Campbell's government has decided to kill B.C.'s only independent drug review agency. And not just kill it, but bury it in an unmarked grave.

The agency involved is called the Therapeutics Initiative. Based at the University of British Columbia, it evaluates new drugs that come on the market.

The Therapeutics Initiative saves taxpayers $50 million annually by finding cheaper alternatives. Largely thanks to its efforts, B.C. has the lowest drug costs in the country, despite offering some of the best coverage.

Moreover, the Therapeutics Initiative runs on a shoestring budget. The agency gets $1 million a year. That means it generates a 50 to one return on investment.

Finally, its researchers have been credited with saving 500 lives by issuing timely warnings about suspect medications..."

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The breathalyzer scandal

Useful editorial from the Times Colonist:

"The news that poorly calibrated breathalyzer devices could have resulted in licence suspensions and fines for innocent drivers is alarming.

Answers are needed from Solicitor General Rich Coleman, not an unelected police spokesman.

Victoria police Chief Jamie Graham, acting as chairman of the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police traffic safety committee, announced Friday that the 2,200 roadside testing devices in the province will be recalibrated.

"Recent" RCMP lab tests found a margin of error in the machines. The devices could indicate a driver's blood-alcohol level was over .05 -- the level at which provincial penalties can be imposed -- when he was under the limit.

The solution is to recalibrate the breathalyzers so a "warn" signal is obtained if the driver blows .06, recognizing the potential machine error.

The implications are huge. Since the new drinking and driving rules were introduced, about 170 British Columbians a week have faced three-day licence suspensions, vehicle impoundment and some $600 in fines and fees. That's more than 1,500 people, at least some of whom were potentially innocent.

But the impact is much greater. Since 1977, police have been issuing 24-hour suspensions based on the same roadside test. Some 150,000 people have been penalized in the past five years alone. Again, some apparently should not have been.

The latest effort to curb drinking and driving is welcome and appears to be working.

But concerns about the arbitrary nature of enforcement and the lack of an effective appeal process were raised well in advance of the new laws. Yet the government did not ensure enforcement was fair and reliable.

Police and government have known of the machines' margin of error for years. The "fail" signal, which indicates a driver is over .08, is actually triggered when a person blows 0.1 for that very reason. But they did not ensure accurate testing for the tens of thousands of drivers facing roadside justice.

Police have put the three-day suspensions on hold until the machines are fixed. But what of the drivers who have lost their licences, paid their fines and now have the offences on their records -- and who might have been innocent?

Government sloppiness has created injustice for some drivers and undermined confidence in a controversial measure."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Big Pharma wins, B.C. taxpayers lose

The government's pandering to Big Pharma by killing a world-acclaimed initiative that ensured only effective drugs were covered by Pharmacare is truly appalling. The Therapeutics Initiative saved the health system hundreds of millions of dollars while ensuring good medical outcomes.
There is no public policy reason to eliminate it. But it also hurt pharmaceutical company profits — B.C. spends much less on prescription drugs than the national average — and they have lobbied for more than a decade to kill it.
Finally, they've won, as this piece reports.
Pharmaceutical companies have a great economic incentive to sell more drugs, at higher prices. That's their job. And it's worth a lot to them to win this kind of victory, so they can spend a great deal on the campaign - political donations and PR campaigns and support for groups that will support them. (Most illness advocacy groups - heart, stroke, cancer - received significant support from drug companies. Some likely couldn't survive without the money.)
Health consumers and taxpayers have to rely on government to look after their interests. It's not working.


One small step that could help is a government-funded Consumers' Health Forum, which I wrote about in the Sun in 2004.

Health care consumers need a voice

VICTORIA - The only people who haven't got a say in the way health care works in Canada are the patients.

Doctors have the BCMA. Nurses, the BCNU. Drug companies have their lobbyists and funded health groups.

But you and I, the people who rely on the system to keep us healthy and fix us when things go wrong? We have no voice.

The government, you might argue. But you'd be wrong. The government doesn't represent health care consumers. It balances a broad range of pressures.

When Health Minister Colin Hansen is locked in a struggle with Nanaimo emergency room doctors, for example, his government represents not just parents who might need to bring a sick baby into emergency at 2 a.m., but businesses that want lower taxes and people pushing for other spending priorities. He's mindful of patients' interests; he's also mindful of the commitment to a balanced budget.

Nothing wrong with that. Just don't interpret it as government representing consumers.

There's a knee-jerk reaction against talking about consumers in the context of government services. But that's what we are -- we pay an average $2,700 a year each for health care, and we consume the service. And we're especially powerless because we're dealing with a monopoly supplier and can't shop elsewhere if we're dissatisfied.

The absence of any real consumer voice has created a vacuum, allowing special interest groups to claim to speak for us. It's obligatory for everyone in a health care debate to talk about putting patients first, while pursuing their own interests.

The Cancer Advocacy Coalition weighed in last week with its annual report linking higher spending on cancer care with lower death rates. The title, Your Money or Your Life, summarizes the message. B.C. has the highest per-capita spending on cancer, the report found, and the lowest mortality rates and shortest waiting times for treatment. More money equals lives saved.

Perhaps. But perhaps B.C. has a lower cancer death rate because people are generally more active and healthier here, or because of tougher anti-smoking rules, or because of a large immigrant population less predisposed to cancer. A true consumer organization would look at all those factors, and weigh the effectiveness of using the same money for other health priorities.

The cancer coalition is doing important work. But it doesn't speak for consumers. Its stated goal is to make cancer the No. 1 health care priority in Canada, not to advocate for better health care.

And like virtually all major health advocacy groups, the cancer coalition depends on funding from big pharmaceutical companies.

Alan Cassels, a drug policy expert at the University of Victoria, says the drug company funding inevitably creates conflicts. "You can almost see the influence of the money."

The problem is compounded because when Health Canada sets out to hold high-level consultations, these are the groups it calls to the table. Each advances its special interest; no one speaks for us.

It's not a uniquely Canadian problem. But fixing it need not be costly or difficult, as Australia has shown.

The Consumers' Health Forum of Australia is almost 20 years old, formed with government support after consumers demanded a health care voice.

It's a coalition of health and community groups. Only organizations that represent consumers -- not providers or care workers or corporations -- are eligible.

The forum represents the public, takes complaints, publishes articles and newsletters, and, most importantly, speaks to the government on behalf of the consumer.

All for about $750,000 a year from government and a bit more from members -- no drug company donations -- and with a staff of eight.

It's a small price to give consumers a long overdue voice.

NDP gives the Liberals something to smile about

I should be writing about the faulty breathalyzers that have been used to impose penalties on hundreds of thousands of British Columbians.
Or Children’s Minister Mary Polak’s bizarre claim that a 15-year-old girl with Down syndrome, found emaciated and raw with diaper rash after spending nine days alone with her mother’s corpse, might not have suffered any harm.
Or a lot of other issues that matter to people right now.
Instead, one more column about politics, thanks to the strange goings-on in the NDP.
That’s an indication the party has got lost. The Liberals are leaderless and wedded to unpopular policies. New Democrats should be focusing attention on problem areas and showing they could do a better job.
Instead, some sort of weird, secret internal rebellion is gripping the party, at the worst possible time.
And it’s being badly mishandled.
NDP leader Carole James faced a leadership test on the weekend when the party’s governing council met in Victoria. A few NDP riding associations had called for a leadership contest next year.
Some New Democrat MLAs were unhappy as well. Last Friday, caucus whip Katrine Conroy gave up that position, apparently in protest. She was supported by MLAs Jenny Kwan, Lana Popham and Claire Trevena.
But none would say what they were actually unhappy about.
Partly, it was about James’s decision to kick Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson out of the caucus after he offered mild criticism of a speech she made. Or, in some cases, about the arbitrary way the decision was made.
That was a blunder. Simpson’s comments were mild. Leaders have lots of ways to communicate displeasure. And it was wrong and foolish for James to leave MLAs - especially one like Conroy, as whip, and Norm Macdonald as caucus chair – out of the decision.
But you have to think the dissatisfaction runs deeper. One bad call about a difficult member of caucus shouldn’t be such a grand offence.
James took on the dissatisfaction head-on. On Friday, the day before the meeting, she said she was “drawing a line in the sand.” Support her leadership and work together, or not. Get in or get out.
It worked with the council. The call for a leadership contest failed, with about 84 per cent voting to keep James.
But in a dumb move, someone in the James camp decided to put pressure on dissidents by handing out yellow scarves and buttons to signal support for her.
The result was that about a dozen MLAs were immediately identified as refusing to support James’s leadership - hardly a great result.
Why don’t they support James? The MLAs won’t say.
They could argue that such discussions should remain behind closed doors, except their discontent is highly public. (And if one-third of the caucus has doubts about a potential future premier, perhaps discussion of their views is in the public interest.)
From outside, James looks to have a good record. From two seats to 35, a significant lead in the polls and no big negatives. Her approval rating - 33 per cent - is lousy, but that might say more about the way we see politicians than her performance. Certainly it wasn’t helped by the Simpson affair and revelations that a handful of big unions have been chipping in to pay Moe Sihota a salary as party. The money isn’t a general donation to the party; it’s to pay Sihota. “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” the saying goes, which leaves the party playing second fiddle.
But you would hardly think those enough to persuade New Democrat MLAs to attack their own party when the chance of forming the next government looks so good.
MLAs have a balancing act - their own judgment, their commitment to constituents who voted for both a party and a candidate and to a shared vision.
The New Democrats attacking James should be candid about their concerns.
Footnote: Meanwhile. Moira Stilwell became the first Liberal leadership candidate. She stepped down as minister of regional economic and skills development. Stilwell’s a doctor who specializes in nuclear medicine and a political rooke elected last year. That’s likely a plus, given public antipathy to Gordon Campbell and those around him.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The New Democrats, and shadow tolls on the Sea to Sky

Two pieces worth your attention.

Ian Reid writes thoughtfully on the NDP's prospects in the aftermath of the odd weekend party meeting that saw Carole James win the support of voting members of the party's governing council - while 11 New Democrat MLAs are still apparently dissatisfied with her leadership. Read him here.
Their next moves will be critical. The MLas can find a way to work with the party, which is what voters likely expected when they elected them. They can quit. Or they can snipe from within. The Liberals are certainly cheering for the latter two options.

And Laila Yuile has been establishing, without a doubt, that the deal for the private companies who did the Sea to Sky Highway improvements and maintain the road includes payments based on "shadow tolls." Part of their annual payment depends on road use, but instead of collecting from drivers the province pays a toll on users' behalf.
That's consistent with the government's policy that there will be no direct tolls on roads for which there is no non-toll alternative. (Though the skyrocketing ferry fares violate that principle.)
What makes this fascinating is the Transportation Ministry's bizarre insistence that there are no shadow tolls, when as Yuile sets out, the companies are absolutely clear that their payment does include the tolls.