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January 4, 2006

Secret Mental Health Plans

Why would the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (VCH) refuse to release documents that it references in its "service redesign plan"?

After almost six months of pursuing a freedom of information request originally made to VCH in July, I was told that all but three of seven documents I requested were "draft" and hence exempt from disclosure due to Sections 13 and 17 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. That ruling is now under appeal to the Freedom of Information and Privacy Commissioner. Using those Sections of the Act, the agency's argument may be, and we have yet to see any detailed submission from VCH, that the draft contains advice or recommendations developed by or for a public body or a minister or that disclosure of the information could harm the financial or economic interests of the public body or the government.

Freedom of Information Commissioners have ruled on the use of Section 13 and 17. Commissioner David Loukidelis ruled on October 12, 1999, in a case involving UBC, that some parts of some records could not be disclosed but that the public body under Section 4(2) of the Act has a duty to sever records. He stated: "This section requires public bodies to review each record in detail - essentially line by line - and to decide which parts "can reasonably be severed" and withheld. This allows the remainder of the record to be disclosed as required by s. 4(2)."

The issue of funding for mental health has been immersed in controversy while little information is available to test the political rhetoric. One of the first cuts made by the Campbell government was to eliminate the office of Mental Health Advocate. The fiscal year ended March 31, 2002, was the last year the budget for adult mental health services was identified as a separate item in documents (called estimates) from the Ministry of Finance; since then it is part of the $7.2 billion given to the health authorities. The government continues to make claims about mental health services even though the claims are incapable of being confirmed.

Anyone can download VCH's "Health Service Redesign Plan 2005/06" from their website. Pages 18 through 28 of the Redesign Plan deal with mental health and addictions services. My request for information is simply for those health authority documents that are referenced by that publicly available plan. For example, on page 19 of the Redesign Plan it states:

"There are 1,233 persons with a mental illness in immediate need of mental health housing and an additional 2,700 needing addictions housing in VCH. To meet the most immediate needs of these two clients groups, 1,568 new housing units are proposed - 901 for mental health and 667 for addictions. This represents 40% of estimated current need. 260 of these units will be implemented in 2005/06 that addresses 6.6% of identified demand."

In order to deal with "40% of estimated current need" the Redesign Plan set "key milestones and duties" which include providing 260 mental health and addiction housing units in fiscal 2005/06 and a further 901 mental health housing units and 667 addictions housing units between 2005/06 and 2008/09. (Who knows whether the unmet need will remain at "only 60%" by 2008/09.)

The Redesign Plan sets out "key performance indicators and targets" for the mental health and addiction housing objectives. When it comes to the "trend analysis" section of the evaluation method, the Redesign Report states: "Refer to the VCH MH&A Housing Plan Business Case (last revised January 21, 2005)." I simply requested a copy of that business case as part of my freedom of information request, but VCH appears to believe that it is a deep secret the release of which is prohibited by the Act. Given the crisis of homelessness seen on the streets of Vancouver, release of the secret document would appear to be a matter of public interest, particularly since the Redesign Plan admits that it will only meet 40% of the current need by 2008/09.

Other documents included in my freedom of information request that have been refused by VCH also pertain to references in the trends part of the evaluation method sections of VCH's mental health service redesign plan. It is truly amazing that an open and transparent government would prevent the public from examining how it intends to evaluate its plans by refusing access to key documents. Can every word in those documents be secret? Is it impossible to sever those documents? What are they hiding?


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