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Pati request over medic’s suspension refused

Dr Donald Thomas

A freedom of information request has been denied regarding allegations of misconduct against the doctor who was the top medic at Bermuda’s only hospital for five years.

Donald Thomas, who is likely to have earned more than $500,000 a year while employed as chief of staff at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, left the island under a cloud in 2012, three months after he was suspended from duty.

The Bermuda Hospitals Board, which receives a $145 million annual grant from the public purse, has never released full information regarding the claims against him, the outcome of an inquiry it launched into his conduct or the details of his “separation and release agreement”.

On May 5 this year, The Royal Gazette applied to the BHB under the Public Access to Information Act for all records it held on the suspension of Dr Thomas and his subsequent resignation. We asked: “Please provide all e-mail correspondence and records relating to the internal BHB inquiry into his conduct.”

The board responded last week with a refusal to release the records. Information officer Debra Goins-Francis wrote: “BHB is refusing disclosure of these records pursuant to section 26(1)(b) of the Act, as the information being requested is exempt from disclosure, in that the disclosure of the information requested would constitute a breach of a duty of confidence provided for by a provision of law.”

The section of the legislation referred to by Ms Goins-Francis states a record “shall be disclosed if disclosure of it is in the public interest” and we have appealed the decision to BHB chairman Peter Everson. If Mr Everson also denies access to the records, we have the right to request an independent review by the information commissioner.

Dr Thomas was appointed in August 2007 to head up the medical staff at KEMH and be, according to a board spokeswoman, the “key lead for clinical quality”. But the BHB admitted almost a year after he was suspended that it did not do “sufficient due diligence” into his background in the United States before giving him the highly paid, highly responsible job.

In February 2011, allegations were made and denied in Parliament about the public servant and other senior hospital staff profiting from a subsidiary of the BHB, called Healthcare Partners Ltd.

Dr Thomas was a director of HPL, along with former BHB chief executive officer David Hill and board members Herman Tucker, Wendell Hollis and Kelly Hodsoll.

A new hospitals board was appointed after the December 2012 General Election and, in May 2013, the Minister of Health released a summarised report which included the board’s findings about Dr Thomas. It said he was placed on leave because of concerns about management of his budget and his refusal to follow the “express direction of the CEO, in particular on the hiring of doctors”. The board said its internal inquiry looked into those issues, plus lack of attention to quality of care and a pre-employment background check, but it made no formal findings because he resigned before it completed the investigation.

“BHB considered the resignation and was advised by counsel that acceptance of the resignation was the best solution,” said the summary. “BHB entered, therefore, into a commercially viable and legally enforceable confidential separation and release agreement with Dr Thomas.” The following month, in an open letter to the public, the new board admitted that HPL was poorly managed, unnecessary, had a board that did not meet and was being investigated by the Auditor-General. The subsidiary was wound up voluntarily in June this year.

This newspaper’s Pati application included a request for all records held by the BHB on HPL. The board released paperwork already available to the public, including the company’s certificates of incorporation and dissolution. It said this newspaper could review the minutes of HPL by attending KEMH. The June 2013 open letter to the community from the BHB admitted some KEMH doctors were “significantly overpaid” and even given bonuses after negotiating contracts with Dr Thomas. The letter, penned by Jonathan Brewin, chairman of the BHB at the time, referred to an internal review of physician contracts. We requested that internal review under Pati but Ms Goins-Francis told us: “We were unable to locate any records in relation to an internal review conducted by BHB of the physician contracts of 2012/13.”

The BHB did not respond to a request for further comment on its decision regarding the Pati request. It has also recently refused to disclose, under Pati, the salaries of six members of its executive team, including the current chief of staff.