22 February 2008

Breast cancer numbers larger than previously announced

More than 1,000 women have been re-tested as part of the breast cancer testing scandal at Eastern Health and of those, 322 have died.

That's more than double the number previously announced.

The new figures come from a high-level government committee which was appointed last year to co-ordinate the provincial government's participation in the Cameron Inquiry.

Take a look at the scrum tape, posted with CBC's story on the government announcement.

Notice that reporters asked direct, relevant questions about the number deceased patients who were tested and what their test results showed. The reporters are asking more informed questions because they are more informed, but notice that neither health minister Ross Wiseman nor Eastern health's chief operations officer could answer the question.

Well, not that they couldn't answer the question.  They just wouldn't.  They decided that sorting out the answer to the commission to answer the reporters' question on a case by case basis.

Take a look at the terms of reference for the Cameron Inquiry, though and you won't see a direction to undertake such a detailed examination. Notice that when David Cochrane puts the hard question again about 12 minutes into the 15 minute session, Wiseman shifts his answer.  Now, Wiseman says, there is a process involved and that a certain update is being provided.  Additional detail will follow.

Those are two dramatically different answers.

One is that the information and analysis is for someone else to prepare.

The second is that we'll do that work next and there will be further updates as analysis is finished.

Bear in mind that this newser wasn't intended to release hard news about the revised death numbers.

Take a look at the official government news release.  As we've seen with the workers comp infosec leak, the news release is structured to bury hard information down the page. The news release wants to draw attention to the $2.3 million being spent to create organizations and policies that were - obviously - seriously flawed or previously didn't exist.

Watch Wiseman when he gets the question about patients.  He speaks about the impact on families and the desire to make sure that no one else goes through this kind of thing.

That it never happens again.

The standard Williams administration response once a problem is exposed.

You'd never know that Wiseman and his predecessors have been involved in this entire process since it was first discovered internally, let alone since it became public.

That's the conflict of interest that sits behind this newser and every other comment Wiseman makes about breast cancer screening. The Cameron Inquiry will be examining what Wiseman and his predecessors did in this matter.  He's being very careful about what he says publicly since he will likely have to deal with questions under oath at some point.  he's also likely to be deposed in the class action lawsuit that sits out there.

He's working to polish the public perception of him and the administration in advance of the legal work to come.  It's a nice - if a bit obvious - bit of litigation public relations.

And that Mr. Thompson they keep referring to in the scrum?  He's part of the issues management campaign as well.  The former top civil servant was sent in last May to run the health department and  - at the same time - to serve as secretary to cabinet for health issues management.

It's in that job - issues management related to Cameron and the breast cancer law suit - that led to the numbers released today.  Government is trying to figure out the extent of their liability.  And to some extent or other they are managing the flow of public information to put themselves in the best possible light.

Government has been kicked around a bit and they've started to counteract that.  There are new faces at Eastern Health, an old face returned from Environment and Conservation and a reportedly closer relationship between the top levels of government and Eastern Health's comms branch.  They've started to talk out radio interviews with sweet talk, for example, or inject the concern and compassionate face you saw Wiseman offering.  They want you to see Wiseman the fixer rather than the guy who bumbled his way through the announcement of the Cameron Inquiry by sticking Fred Kasirye out there as a sacrificial offering.

And it's that history of bumbling that makes you wonder:  has actually taken on outside counsel  - litigation or crisis PR experts - to help with the damage control.

You see, they might be doing this stuff on their own, but government's never shown an ability to polish a knob with quite this degree of subtlety.  They've usually resorted to shooting off a toe or two.