3 min

Invasion of privacy

Group charges HIV-positive at risk with proposed contract

'I HAVE TO BE CONVINCED.' BC Health Minister Colin Hansen pledges he won't sign a contract with US company Maximus to run PharmaCare and BC Medical Services Plan unless they can convince him of patient confidentiality. Civil liberties and AIDS activists say they are not reassured by vague statements. Credit: Xtra West files

Concerns are mounting in the community over a proposed government initiative to contract out the administration of BC’s medical and pharmaceutical insurance plans to a private US company. And even the health minister says the concerns are worth looking into.

The BC Liberals first announced their intention to privatize parts of PharmaCare and BC’s Medical Services Plan (MSP) last summer. By September, they had short-listed four companies; four months ago they chose Maximus.

Maximus is a US-based international corporation. And that’s a problem, says Micheal Vonn, policy director for the BC Civil Liberties Association and a member of the Right to Privacy Campaign.

As a US-based company, Maximus is subject to the USA Patriot Act, Vonn explains. That’s the act the US passed after Sep 11, 2001 to fight terrorism and enhance homeland security. Critics say the act gives US law enforcement agencies unprecedented surveillance powers, including the power to access data banks from all US companies-data banks that could soon hold all kinds of information about British Columbians, if the government’s deal with Maximus goes ahead this August.

“The government has a legal and moral duty to protect the personal and confidential information of British Columbians,” Vonn says. If the government turns the administration of MSP and PharmaCare over to Maximus, “it will lose control of who has access to that information. And that’s a breach of our privacy rights.”

This isn’t just a hypothetical risk, she continues. Research shows the FBI has indeed been using the Patriot Act to access personal records it thinks may be related to terrorist activity.

In fact, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union recently told a BC court in an affidavit that the FBI could use Section 215 of the Patriot Act to force the disclosure of personal records-even if it has “no reason to believe that the person is a spy, terrorist or engaged in criminal activity of any sort.”

And Canadian information is probably not exempt, Vonn says.

“The privacy rights are so critical and the risks are so great,” she reiterates.

Glen Bradford, chair of the BC Persons with AIDS Society and fellow member of the Right to Privacy Campaign, agrees. “I’m very scared,” he says, pointing out that HIV-positive people have special reason to be concerned about this deal.

If Maximus takes over the administrative functions of MSP and PharmaCare, it will find out who is HIV-positive in BC, he explains. If the FBI then accesses those files, it will find out, too.

If the FBI then turns that information over to border guards, they could use it to enforce the law banning entry to the US of all HIV-positive people.

That could create a “blacklist” at the border, Bradford says. Right now, HIV-positive people don’t tell border guards their status and guards generally don’t ask, he explains. But if British Columbians’ medical information suddenly becomes part of a centralized US security data bank, a person’s HIV-status could come up when the guard enters his or her name.

“We’re basically handing over information that will prevent us from crossing the border. That’s nobody’s business,” Bradford says, noting that the law banning HIV-positive people from the US is based on an out-dated understanding of how contagious HIV is and how easily it is transmitted.

The FBI won’t necessarily be hunting for HIV-positive people if it checks Maximus’ records, Bradford points out. But if they find HIV information, they probably won’t just look the other way.

“I don’t think I’m being the least bit alarmist,” he says. “This is a very real concern and people should be paying attention to it.”

Health Minister Colin Hansen says Canadians are right to be asking questions about the Patriot Act and how it will apply in situations such as these.

He says he’s working to ensure that the government’s contract with Maximus won’t compromise the confidentiality of British Columbians’ medical information. It is possible to protect that information, he says, though he won’t specify how.

All he will say is that Maximus is confident it will find a way-and that he, personally, won’t sign off on the deal until he’s confident, too. “I have to be convinced,” he says.

If he’s not convinced? “I won’t sign it,” Hansen says. “I think patient confidentiality is more important than the efficiency we hope to get out of [this new deal].”

Vonn is not reassured. “We are not satisfied with vague assurances,” she says. “We’d like to see this stopped.”

So would Bradford. “I’d like to see it stopped. Full stop,” he echoes.

Hansen says he’s hoping to be able to sign a contract with Maximus by late August, so the company can begin modernizing what he refers to as the embarrassingly slow administrative functions of MSP and PharmaCare.

“I’m looking at this and thinking citizens should get involved,” Vonn says.

* The campaign is hosting two public forums: Wed Jul 7, 7 pm, Vancouver Public Library at 350 W Georgia St; Thu Jul 8, 7 pm, David Lam Auditorium, University of Victoria.