Column for Sept.17, 2006: Horne case again

Horne case isn’t over

Last week’s decision in the Gabrielle Horne case has clarified a couple of key issues in the ongoing dispute at the province’s largest hospital.

For starters, we now know the Capital District Health Authority had no legitimate reason to vary Dr. Horne’s hospital privileges on a supposed “emergency” basis four years ago.

Which means that none of what followed from that single initial wrong-headed decision— the closure of Horne’s “globally pioneering” cardiac research program, the attacks on her professional reputation, the threat of international academic sanctions against Dalhousie University for its silence-is-consent role in the dragged-out debacle, the meter-is-still-ticking, millions of dollars in unnecessary legal bills sucked out of the health care budget to pay for this fiasco… None of it needed to happen. None.

What we don’t know is why the health authority has decided to make its humiliation worse — and our eventual cost higher — by continuing, even in the very decision that exonerated her, to claim Dr. Horne is somehow “the author of her own misfortune.” (If that borrowed turn of phrase sounds eerily familiar, it’s because that’s the way the self-interested, blame-the-victim judges of Nova Scotia’s appeals court — in attempting to slough off the justice system’s responsibility for Donald Marshall, Jr.’s wrongful murder conviction 35 years ago — described the native youth who spent 11 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.)

We also don’t know why the health authority’s board hasn’t fired its in-house legal department, which unconscionably dragged this matter out well past its best-before date, or asked for a refund from its high-priced, hired-gun lawyers who achieved such dismal results.

Make no mistake. Despite the authority’s best efforts at spin, last Friday’s "decision of the board of directors on certain preliminary issues" in the Horne case represents a complete capitulation.

After dancing — for two tortured pages out of a five-page decision — around the question of whether there really were grounds to justify the hospital’s draconian measures, the panel finally had no choice but to find that even Horne’s alleged “lack of collegiality was not sufficiently problematic” to do what they did.

What makes that especially interesting — and revealing — is that the panel never heard from one witness concerning Dr. Horne’s supposed lack of collegiality, or listened to the "string of witnesses" her lawyer was preparing to call to refute those allegations if they’d been made.

Instead, the panel cut short the hearing after less than two days, not even ruling on a second preliminary motion — about whether the variance had been legally approved — in its unseemly haste to get the inevitable over with. Which means we didn’t get to hear more of the unedifying details of a potentially damaging back-dated letter the administration tried to use to justify its actions against Dr. Horne. Or learn more about the personality conflict with a colleague that appears to have been the real root cause of all that has happened to Dr. Horne over the past four years.

While the panel seemed willing enough to repeat accusations against the doctor tarted up as findings of fact, it couldn’t bring itself to do what it should have done a long time ago: apologize to Dr. Horne for putting her through four years of professional and personal hell.

Which is one reason why the panel’s decision itself will almost certainly become yet another item in the lengthy statement of claim Horne’s lawyer is expected to file within the next few week. “We believe the decision makes our case even stronger,” understates Horne’s lawyer, Ron Pizzo.

Given what has transpired so far — including the gutting of Horne’s well-regarded multimillion dollar research program as well as the incalculable damage to her career and life – the ultimate cost to taxpayers could be enormous.

“Gaby isn’t looking for compensation for the sake of it,” Pizzo explains. “But the simple fact is she’ll need money to restart her research.”

Given the impact of the board’s latest ill-considered decision on this case’s eventual cost to the health care system as well as its ongoing abysmal failure to oversee the actions of the hospital’s administration, we also have every right to ask why our health minister hasn’t already dismissed the board or, at the very least, launched an investigation to find out what went wrong this time and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

It’s time we started asking.

Stephen Kimber, the Maclean Hunter Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College, is the author of five nonfiction books as well as a novel, Reparations, which was published this spring by HarperCollins.

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