10/22/2013 06:32 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Therapeutics Initiative Funding Reinstated By B.C. Government

VANCOUVER - The provincial government has reinstated funding for a University of British Columbia program that independently assesses the effectiveness and safety of drugs covered under B.C's Pharmacare program, a program whose funding was cut in the midst of a bizarre scandal last year.

The province suspended the contracts for the Therapeutics Initiative in September 2012, and launched a review of potential privacy breaches involving medical information.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday that all of the recommendations of privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham have been put in place, as well as the recommendations from a data security review by Deloitte.

"Restoring secure data access and contracts comes after taking steps to strengthen the security of health information at the ministry, and make approved data available more quickly for researchers," the ministry said in a statement.

Among the changes, 280 ministry personnel have received mandatory privacy and data security training.

Beginning later this fall, all contractors and researchers using ministry data will have to have similar training, and random audits will be conducted on how researchers use health data.

UBC welcomed the announcement, saying the program will resume with improved protection for patient privacy.

"This is good news. It means stronger patient protection through evidence-based evaluations of new drugs," said Gavin Stuart, dean of the faculty of medicine.

The program resumes with more oversight and better protection of patient information, Stuart said.

In September 2010 when the funding was cut, the ministry announced that seven pharmaceutical researchers had been fired, accused of misconduct related to data-management practices.

The events were never fully explained, and the mystery only intensified after one of the researchers was found dead of an apparent suicide, according to reports.

The investigation by the provincial privacy watchdog said the investigation began in May 2012 and related to three cases in which researchers requested information from the ministry and received health data with information — personal health numbers — that could identify the individuals.

The privacy investigation found deficiencies in the ministry's privacy and security safeguards for personal information and made 11 recommendations around access to provincial health databases.

All seven fired ministry employees filed lawsuits claiming wrongful dismissal.

The Therapeutics Initiative was put in place in 1994, and was contracted by the provincial health ministry to gather and assess clinical data on the effectiveness and use of pharmaceutical drugs. The program reports helped guide the province in deciding which drugs would be covered by the provincial Pharmacare program.

The program researchers accessed provincial data such as hospital and lab records, Medicare billing data, cancer registries, vital statistics and employment data in assessing drugs and public policy initiatives.

Last year, the program funding was cut from $1 million to $550,000, according to previous stories. The province said Tuesday the renewed contract is worth $550,000 a year, plus additional funding worth up to $150,000 for clinical drug reviews.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix applauded the government for re-instating the program, saying it was an "important step and a real victory."

"For pretty much the entire 12 years of the Liberal government, they've been targeting this.. . .What happens every time is that the work that they (the initiative) do is seen as indispensible because it is. It saves lives, it saves money in a healthcare system that needs both."

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