Tuesday, July 24, 2012

An Open Letter to Canada's Auditor General Regarding Health Canada

Yoni Freedhoff
Medical Director, Bariatric Medical Institute
Assistant Professor, University of Ottawa
575 West Hunt Club, Suite 100
Ottawa ON K2G5W5

July 24th, 2012

Michael Ferguson
Auditor General
Office of the Auditor General of Canada
240 Sparks Street
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0G6 Canada

Dear Mr. Ferguson,

My name is Yoni Freedhoff and I'm a physician and public health advocate. I am writing to you today in regard to the actions of Health Canada, and to be very clear, I'm not writing to you to consider their public health decision making, but rather to inform you of willfully mismanaging public funds in their creation of task forces and working groups whose recommendations are summarily rejected nearly the moment they're reported.

The first such example involved our Trans-Fat Task Force. Struck in 2005, the Task Force consisted of 24 members and involved the commissioning of a literature review, 3 full day face to face meetings, 5 teleconferences, 2 public consultations and the writing of a 116 page final report. The Task Force called for a regulatory approach to reducing trans-fats in Canada's food supply. Then Minister of Health Tony Clement elected instead to launch a 2 year trial program of voluntary reductions followed by regulation if voluntary efforts failed.   Unfortunately voluntary reductions did fail, yet rather than implement the regulations promised by Minister Clement, Minister Aglukkaq elected instead to extend the taxpayer funded trans-fat surveillance program.  In April 2010, she herself reported that the program's,
"results indicate that further reductions are needed to fully meet the public health objectives and reduce the risk of coronary heart disease."
However just last week she reported that the surveillance program was,
"a time-limited initiative that ran its course",
and summarily ended it. As a taxpayer I'm quite concerned by all of this. From initially ignoring their own undoubtedly expensive task force's advice, to establishing an undoubtedly expensive surveillance program, to extending that surveillance program rather than follow through with the promise of regulation if it failed, to finally eliminating the program and not enacting a regulatory approach ultimately it means a great deal of public money was wasted.

The next example involves Health Canada's Sodium Working Group. Struck in 2007, the group was tasked with developing a population-health strategy to reduce sodium in the diets of Canadians. Their report was released on July 29th, 2010 and it made two dozen recommendations meant to bring down Canadian salt consumption. 8 months later and Health Canada announced that rather than follow the expert recommendations they themselves commissioned (at a reported cost of $1,000,000), that they would instead seek further guidance from the Food Expert Advisory Committee - a committee with strong ties to the food industry - and that the Working Group was to be disbanded. This led one member of the original working group to state,
"What's the government doing? They got the group of experts and industry people together and spent three years putting together a strategy. Now they're trying to find some other people to give them a different strategy? It just doesn't make any sense."
No it doesn't. And it also costs us a great deal of money.

While I realize it's beyond the purvey of your office to determine the scientific soundness of Health Canada and Minister Aglukkaq's decisions, as a taxpayer I need to ask, why are many millions of taxpayer dollars being spent to fund expensive expert advisory panels and surveillance programs if their recommendations are simply to be wholly and completely ignored?

Respectfully yours,

Yoni Freedhoff, MD
Medical Director, Bariatric Medical Institute
Assistant Professor, University of Ottawa
575 West Hunt Club, Suite 100
Ottawa ON K2G5W5