NDP questions Furey's biotech links amid new health-care bill privacy concerns

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey sat on the board of St. John's biotechnology company Sequence Bio before becoming Liberal leader. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey sat on the board of St. John's biotechnology company Sequence Bio before becoming Liberal leader. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Newfoundland and Labrador's New Democrats are questioning Premier Andrew Furey's business ties to a health research company, in the wake of the provincial government's attempt to pass Bill 20 this week.

The bill, which would amalgamate the province's four health authorities, was set for its second reading in the House of Assembly this week.

But it came under heavy criticism ahead of that, from both Furey's political opponents in the House and the province's privacy commissioner, who slammed the government for not allowing his office to see the bill ahead of time.

In a letter to the provincial government, Michael Harvey said he was concerned about what the bill could mean for the "collection, use and disclosure of information" and "who will have access to such data, and for what purposes."

During question period in the House of Assembly on Thursday, NDP MHA Lela Evans asked about Furey's connection to Sequence Bio, a biotech company based in St. John's.

Furey sat on the company's board of directors from 2016-20 before taking office, though the asset — among others — is now in a blind trust.

Sequence Bio is leading the N.L. Genome Project, which relies on samples and information from volunteers. Evans asked if the bill, in its current state, would allow government to sell patient information to the company for research purposes.

"Which of your friends at [Sequence Bio] will profit from this government's wilful refusal to seek input from the privacy commissioner on the drafting of the bill?" said Evans.

Darrell Roberts/CBC
Darrell Roberts/CBC

Osborne: 'No intent' to sell information

In response, Health Minister Tom Osborne called the implication "a despicable attack" and "the worst stretch" that he'd ever seen.

Speaking to reporters after question period, Osborne said, "There's nothing in this legislation that would allow your personal health records to be sold.

"That is ridiculous. We're certainly willing to do what's necessary to protect people's personal information. There is no intent to sell somebody's personal information."

This is the second controversy over Furey's connections to dog the premier in as many weeks.

He is under fire for his luxury trip to the fishing lodge of a billionaire friend — a man trying to get government approval for a major wind-hydrogen project in western Newfoundland.

Speaking to reporters Thursday morning, Furey defended himself against the new concerns.

"That's a quantum leap. Yeah, I mean that's really grasping," he said.

"I don't know what to say. I don't have any knowledge of the inner workings of Sequence Bio — I don't even know if I still own shares in Sequence Bio anymore," he said, referring to his interest in the company being put into a blind trust.

Privacy commissioner satisfied

Meanwhile, Harvey said he's satisfied with his meeting with government officials to address concerns regarding the new health-care bill.

Officials from the Health Department and the privacy commissioner's office met Thursday morning, and Harvey said he made several recommendations regarding amendments to the bill.

"It was a very good meeting," said Harvey. "I had the opportunity to express our concerns about the current draft of the bill. [We] want to be clear that we don't oppose, in any way, the policy direction for a new health authority to focus on these areas.

"But we believe there needs to be more specificity about what exactly is involved, because potentially, it could involve the collection [and] disclosure of different types of information than previously the health authorities and the Centre for Health information have been involved in."

Harvey said he believed Osborne when he referred to the situation as a "critical oversight," adding that they are going to move past it and get to work.

"The key now is how do we make a bill that is good for the privacy of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians?" said Harvey.

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