Another N.W.T. patient’s health info is made public, this time in the legislature

Once again, a patient from the Northwest Territories has had their health information made public. This time, it happened on the floor of the Legislative Assembly. 

On Tuesday, Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos tabled an email exchange between a constituent and that constituent’s doctor. 

That email exchange included documents showing the diagnosis, the patient’s address, health card number and phone number. It also included details about an upcoming procedure. 

That patient had been denied her request for a medical travel escort. Earlier in the day, Martselos was questioning Health Minister Diane Thom about why that happened, and urging her to make changes to the medical travel system. 

Clerk’s office says it followed procedure 

According to Glen Rutland, a deputy clerk with the Legislative Assembly, Martselos had obtained her constituent’s permission to table those documents. Then, they were posted online — which is the normal procedure for documents tabled in the Legislative Assembly once they’ve been made public.  

Though the patient may have consented to having those documents tabled, it’s not clear whether they understood the documents would then be posted on a government website. CBC News left a message with the patient, but did not hear back.

Whether it makes me cringe or not is irrelevant. – Elaine Keenan Bengts, N.W.T. privacy commissioner

Rutland declined an interview, but sent a statement saying MLAs do not clear their tabled documents with Speaker Frederick Blake Jr. before they are tabled.

Under the rules, Blake is able to rule a tabled document out of order, but he did not do so in this case. 

It is also “not the role of the Office of the Clerk to determine which documents should or should not be posted,” Rutland said in the statement.  

Martselos did not immediately respond to requests for comment from CBC News. 

Privacy commissioner’s hands tied

Elaine Keenan Bengts, the territory’s privacy commissioner, said she “cringed” when she saw those documents — but there isn’t much she can do.

Neither MLAs nor the Legislative Assembly are covered in the territory’s privacy legislation. 

N.W.T. Privacy Commissioner Elaine Keenan Bengts said she ‘cringed’ when she saw private information made public. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

“Nothing was done inappropriately,” Keenan Bengts said. “As I understand it the constituent gave their consent. Whether it makes me cringe or not is irrelevant.

“Perhaps a little more care might have been given to editing the paperwork to remove names or references to identifying information,” she said. “It all depends on the constituent and what they thought.” 

Since seeing those documents, Keenan Bengts has reached out to the Legislative Assembly and offered to help new MLAs learn more about privacy. She suspects the release of this information was most likely because of inexperience on the part of Martselos, a first-term MLA. 

“There’s an awful lot of new MLAs sitting in the house,” she said. “Not all of them likely have a background in privacy law.

“MLAs need to get their feet under themselves and figure out how to represent their constituents’ interests without identifying them in a way that is very public and very permanent,” she said. 

History of health breaches 

The Northwest Territories has a history of breaching the private health data of patients in the territory. Over the past decade there have been more than a dozen instances of health data being mistakenly released by the Health Department or the Health and Social Services Authority. 

WATCH: CBC’s John Last explains the long history of health breaches in the N.W.T. 

There have been at least 15 health breaches in the territory over the past eight years. CBC’s John Last recounts them all. 3:44 

During that time, confidential records have been left at the dump in Fort Simpson, an encrypted laptop containing information on most of the territory was stolen, and faxes have been routinely sent to the wrong location, including the CBC offices in Yellowknife. 

The territorial government is facing a lawsuit over these breaches and that case is making its way through the courts. 

According to the rules governing the Legislative Assembly, MLAs may choose to table documents that have not been published, but may be of public interest.  

On Wednesday afternoon, there was one redaction made to the documents Martselos tabled — the patient’s health card number was obscured, but all the other information is still visible.

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