Horne legal costs top a million (July 12, 2007)

Feasting at the Horne of plenty

Capital District Health Authority has so far officially taken at least $1,024,649.90 out of this province’s badly under-funded health care system to pay for expensive private lawyers to fight the unwinnable, never-should-have-happened legal case against Dr. Gabrielle Horne.

I must qualify with so far… officially… at least…

because that million-plus figure tells only part of a bigger and much more alarming story; because some people familiar with the case question even the “totals only” numbers I finally received last week; and because the very expensive legal time clock is still ticking.

Dr. Horne, you will recall, is the “globally pioneering” heart researcher whose multimillion dollar research program the CHDA effectively shut down in October 2002 when it varied her hospital privileges on an “emergency basis,” ostensibly to protect patient safety.

It took almost four years and countless legal battles for the board to finally fess up last fall that there never was any basis to vary her privileges. (After all these years, in fact, the only illogically logical explanation is that this was a personality conflict that spiraled wildly out of control.)

Rather than apologize and cut its losses, the board has now chosen to accuse Horne of being the author of her own misfortune, thus prompting a law suit that will not only eat up millions more in outside legal fees as it wends its way through the courts but that will also ultimately be lost, costing the authority — us —more millions to settle.

Which may be good for the bottom line at Boyne Clarke and Wickwire Holm, the big two (of the five) local law firms feasting at the Horne trough.

As for the rest of us?

I filed a freedom of information request on Jan. 12, 2007, asking for details about the outside legal firms the authority had hired and how much it had paid each, as well as the number of hours its in-house counsel had chalked up on the case.

Instead of answering my questions, the authority did its best to avoid them, claiming it doesn’t keep track of the hours its own lawyers work on specific cases — which strikes me, at the very least, as lousy management — and hiding behind the ludicrous claim of lawyer-client privilege to keep me from finding out how much it had paid the outside lawyers.

In the end, I had to appeal to the province’s freedom of information review officer just to get CDHA to cough up the global amounts it had paid the outside lawyers for their work on the case.

Which may explain why some legal people I talked to who have followed the case closely question whether the figures are really complete.

In the larger sense, they certainly aren’t. Consider for a moment the massive iceberg on top of which even that one million-dollar legal expenditure sits: the countless (and uncounted) ka-chink hours the authority’s in-house lawyers spent on the case, the wasted time health care administrators and the authority board devoted to covering their bureaucratic butts instead of managing the province’s biggest, most complex regional health care system, the loss of millions in outside funding to support Horne’s research and the spinoffs that would almost certainly have come with it, etc., etc.

To make matters worse, the Horne case is not even the only dumb legal battle gobbling up precious health care dollars. The authority is also fighting an equally specious, equally unwinnable legal battle against another respected researcher, Dr. Michael Goodyear. That case is now headed to the Human Rights Commission. More lawyers. More dollars.

So what is the real total? Two million? Three million? Five million?

The answer is way too much. If the CDHA’s administrators and board won’t — or can’t — end this lunacy, then it is long past time for Health Minister Chris d’Entremont to step in and put them — and us — out of their misery.

***

A footnote to last week’s column concerning the appointment of Robert Wright, a senior bureaucrat in the Department of Community Services, to be one of two “parent” representatives on the controversial provincial committee that is supposed to review how well the Children and Family Services Act is working.

I argued Wright was in a conflict of interest, and that he should “do the honourable thing and resign.”

This week he did.

In an email, Wright told me he had applied for the committee position before he landed his latest job as Executive Director of the department’s new Youth Strategy. “So I was actually appointed to the committee as ’Joe Citizen,’ who had both personal and professional experience,” he explained. But it was also clear he could not help but be seen to be representing the vested interests of the department on the committee, so he did the right thing and resigned.

For which I commend him.

Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. His column, “Kimber’s Nova Scotia,” appears in the Sunday Daily News.

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