What the minister didn’t say

Russell Wangersky
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Maybe Health Minister Jerome Kennedy just isn’t one of those detail guys.

After all, as a Memorial University librarian pointed out earlier this week, it’s clear Kennedy isn’t aware of basic numbers, like the average family income in this province. He seems to be convinced that the average family makes $35,000, while even three years ago, the number was actually more than $69,000.

Rather embarrassing gaffe for a former finance minister, wouldn’t you think?

But back to Kennedy’s current job, and the bunch of holes that are appearing in his stated goal of making sure the public has “complete and accurate” information about doctors’ pay — because Kennedy’s information has been anything but clear and accurate.

"Part of government’s responsibility is to ensure the public has access to complete and accurate information to allow them to fully understand the nature of the issue under discussion — in this case, the resignation of a number of salaried specialists," Kennedy said, while saying that at least seven of the salaried specialists who are resigning also receive stipends above their base salaries for clinical work or for teaching at Memorial University — and, technically, that’s true.

This is what Kennedy said on Nov. 8: “One point I wanted to make that wasn’t clear on Friday was the issue of the actual salary that some of these individuals get. Out of the 13 specialists who resigned last week, at least seven of them also receive a stipend of anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000 as a result of teaching at Memorial University or involved in Eastern Health.”

But what Kennedy didn’t point out — too cute by half — is that those same doctors also have their base salaries cut back to account for the fact that their time is restricted by teaching duties.

Now, maybe he didn’t know that, either. For Kennedy’s information, here’s the clause from an arbitration award in 2003 that states the process clearly.

“Some salaried physicians are also employed with Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador Medical School where they have teaching and research commitments and are designated geographic full time (“GFT”). GFT salaried physicians provide a reduced level of patient care services, and therefore receive a maximum of 80 per cent of the established salary scale.”

What does that mean?

Well, a salaried specialist would make around $183,000 a year in base pay. Kennedy would have you total that up with stipends for teaching to a great big global number.

But the fact is that the doctors involved don’t make that base pay; they lose, at a minimum, $36,600 off that base salary as a result of their teaching duties, so that their base is only $146,400. They get that 80 per cent of their salary even if they work 100 per cent of their clinical hours, as many of them do. It’s still a ton of money, but that’s the complete and accurate information that Kennedy carefully didn’t release.

Maybe Kennedy just didn’t realize that. Maybe the premier didn’t either, when he later supported the release of just part of the facts.

It’s not the only place that Kennedy’s full public disclosure has been full of holes. Take his argument that doctors get 10 weeks of guaranteed holidays every year. Lumped into that number was nine statutory holidays that the doctors don’t necessarily get, and two weeks of study leave that doctors get only once — to complete their registration exams. Another one of those weeks is supposed to make up for every scrap of unpaid overtime that doctors work during a year — a swap that is woefully inadequate to make up for what is often hundreds of hours of overtime.

When a group of doctors was asked about Kennedy’s 10-week claim, they literally burst into laughter.

Perhaps Kennedy didn’t read the leave clauses either.

Then, there’s the privacy commissioner’s report Kennedy almost certainly didn’t read, before he said in a news release that the privacy commissioner ruled in an April 16, 2008 decision that where salaries and benefits are paid from the public purse, the public has a right to know "not only the amounts to which an employee is entitled, but, for example, the amounts of severance pay or reimbursements for expenses actually received."

Once again, Kennedy is right — but wrong.

In that decision, the province’s information commissioner said “the public interest in the accountability of public bodies requires that the basic elements of a public servant’s terms of employment be disclosed. … It is important to note that in cases in which these issues have been considered, it has been held that remuneration information which is to be disclosed to the public includes not only the amounts to which an employee is entitled, but, for example, the amounts of severance pay, or reimbursements for expenses actually received. These decisions are consistent with the principle that where salaries and benefits are paid from the public purse, it is appropriate that the definition be given a ‘fairly expansive interpretation’ in keeping with the purposes of transparency and accountability.”

But Kennedy, or maybe his staff, clearly didn’t read all the way to the end of that exact same report — which said that kind of information can be released if someone asks for it.

But if a government agency decides, as Kennedy did, to spontaneously release private information to gain some kind of advantage, an entirely different portion of the province’s privacy legislation comes into play, one that, the privacy commissioner wrote, at the end of that same ruling, “is intended to govern the actions of public bodies themselves, in how they collect, use and disclose personal information in the course of their administrative operations.”

Under that section of the law, public bodies need permission from individuals before they release personal information.

So, the minister of health not only released information about salaries, but used the wrong numbers when he did and cited the wrong legal authority for doing so.

That sure engenders confidence, doesn’t it?

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by e-mail at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Memorial University of Newfoundland, Labrador Medical School

Geographic location: Eastern Health

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Recent comments

  • Legal Aid DOCTORS ???????????????
    November 22, 2010 - 10:21

    "It's not a lie, to keep the truth to ones self" Spock, from StarTrek 1962 This was the episode that turned people into alot of geeks. Its the story of how, secretly James T. Kirk broke the law and knowingly passed into Romulan territory to steal a cloaking device. He put the ship into harms way, they were ambushed and both the captain and spock were beamed on the enemy ship. There, they put on a show and tricked them into thinking the captain was mentally sick which, eventually got the captain to the device and beamed back to his ship. Now this is alot like the situation between the province and the doctors, only the government already has the cloaking device. So why are they crossing the line, again! If this were their health, it would be their money and their choice but when its OUR health, OUR money and HIS choice....well this is what ya get. Its like this, When they talk about their own health they only want the fastest and most expensive car off the dealers lot, when it comes the people of our province, well......just hope theres an old K-CAR up the street for sale. They just want it to sound to complicated for you to care about...especially your our own healthcare.

  • Pierre Neary
    November 21, 2010 - 00:05

    Minister Kennedy has proven to be quite the wrecking ball when it comes to portfolios. He is running out of them. This is a total embarrassment for the Minister. Smacks of desperation. The outing of Dr. Trahey’s salary the way he did was an all-time low. Cheap gutter politics. When is the Premier going to do what needs to be done once again and move Minister Kennedy. What is taking the Premier so long??

  • Graham
    November 20, 2010 - 14:47

    Excellet article. Thanks for getting the true story out there. THe story that neither Danny or Jermome wants us to know.

  • Dave from Mt Pearl
    November 20, 2010 - 12:26

    It is so nice and refreshing to see the actual facts put out there for all to see,too bad not all will see or even bother to read.Excellent article Russell keep up the good work and hey how about getting a little more dirt on the boys of the hill,they hardly make enough for all the work they do.

  • Willi Makit
    November 20, 2010 - 11:50

    Since when was truth of any importance to lawyers? Their purpose in life is to win - by whatever means legally possible.