Column for May 14, 2006

Health authority should learn from Willow

There’s a lesson for the Capital District Health Authority in this week’s Human Rights Commission ruling in the Lindsay Willow case. But is it a lesson the authority is yet ready to learn?

Willow is the Halifax West High School teacher who has spent the last five-and-a-half years trying to clear her name after the Halifax Regional School Board refused to let go of spurious, wrongheaded allegations she’d had sex with a female student in a school washroom.

A human rights tribunal last week not only exonerated Willow completely but also ordered the board to write her a letter of apology and pay her $27,000 in damages for allowing her to “twist in the wind [rather] than take on a principal, and to use its resources to embark on a long hearing rather than admit any error.”

That $27,000 will turn out to be chump change if Dr. Gabrielle Horne — the young medical researcher whose pioneering multi-million-dollar cardiac research program was effectively ended three-and-a-half years ago by what appear to be equally spurious, wrongheaded allegations that Horne’s research endangered patient safety — decides to sue the health authority for what it’s done to her career and life.

Consider some of the parallels.

Willow’s colleague-and-supervisory accusers transformed an innocent encounter between Willow and a student into a much more serious allegation of sexual assault because Willow was a lesbian.

Horne’s colleague-and-supervisory accusers transformed a difference of opinion over what role another doctor should play in her research program into a much more serious allegation of endangering patients because of what appears to be professional jealousy.

The allegations against Willow were investigated by the Halifax police who, after interviewing everyone involved, concluded, “that, quite probably, nothing had occurred on Sept. 9, 2000 at approximately 1400 hours.”

The allegations against Horne were investigated by the health board’s medical advisory board and by a panel of independent doctors who exonerated her and urged the board to “expeditiously… reinstate Dr. Horne’s full privileges.”

Neither the school board nor the health authority appear to have paid the least attention to the fact there was no evidence to support the allegations.

“The board, “ notes inquiry chair Walter Thompson, “chose to analyze [Willow’s] complaint within the context of the collective agreement, found no violation, obtusely blamed the police for coming to the school, and washed its hands of the complaint.”

The health authority board, for its part, appears to have chosen to hide behind the very expensive skirts of its lawyers. From everything I’ve been able to determine, the board has yet to even formally consider what happened to Horne in 2002. Its chair refused to receive the independent peer review committee report into the allegations. Its lawyers refused to accept a letter from Horne pleading for funds to keep her lab in place until the allegations were resolved. And the board — or was that its lawyers? — refused to agree to a settlement agreement signed by its own CEO. The board continued — continues — to allow its in-house and outside lawyers to run up millions of dollars in legal bills.

In his report on the Willow affair this week, Walter Thompson lamented: “This has been an extraordinarily expensive proceeding. This whole affair has cost, I am sure, the equivalent of several teacher-years. I regret the money spent on lawyers and process.”

The much-more-money being spent on lawyers in the Horne case is money that is not being spent on health care.

With what, ultimately, will almost certainly be the same sorry end.

On Wednesday, Halifax Regional School Board Superintended Carole Olsen, who was not around when this case started, apologized “unreservedly” to Lindsay Willow and acknowledged “this board failed in its duty to clear her name.”

There will come a time when the health authority board chair or CEO, neither of whom were around when the Horne case began either, will offer the same sort of groveling apology. And taxpayers will foot another, much higher bill for the board’s failure to do its job.

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