On June 1st, 2016, IPC Adjudicator John Higgins released his decision (PO-3617) in a case involving OHIP billings.
This case arose from an access to information request to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care for the names, specialities and payments made to OHIP’s top 100 billers in each of the past five years. The ministry disclosed all payment amounts and the specialties of some physicians from these lists. However, the ministry withheld the names of the physicians and some of the identified specialties based on the personal privacy exemption in Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
The requester, a journalist with the Toronto Star, appealed that decision to the IPC. After receiving submissions from the Ontario Medical Association and two doctors’ associations, in addition to 79 doctors – some on their own behalf and others through counsel – the adjudicator overruled the ministry’s decision and ordered full disclosure of the requested information, including the names of the physicians.
The adjudicator found that the payment amounts related to the physicians in their professional or business capacity and did not reveal anything that is “inherently personal in nature.” He therefore concluded that the withheld information was not “personal information” and did not qualify for the personal privacy exemption. The adjudicator also found that a further exemption designed to protect third party business information did not apply because the withheld information would not reveal informational assets that the physicians had supplied to the ministry.
The adjudicator also considered whether, even if the information had been found to be exempt, there was a compelling public interest in disclosure of the information which clearly outweighed the personal privacy and third party informational interests in the information. The adjudicator found that there is a compelling public interest in the disclosure of the names of OHIP’s top 100 billers that would clearly outweigh the purposes of these exemptions. He stated:
“I am aware that these payments do not reflect the physicians’ personal income, as they represent gross revenue that does not take overhead expenses or payments to other physicians or staff members into account. Nevertheless, it is an inescapable fact that these payments consume a substantial amount of the Ontario government’s budget, and regardless of the fact that the physicians are not public servants, these amounts reflect payments for public services provided to the public and paid for by taxpayers.”
Adjudicator Higgins went on in his order to conclude:
“In my view, the concept of transparency, and in particular, the closely related goal of accountability, requires the identification of parties who receive substantial payments from the public purse, whether they are providing services to public bodies under contract or, as in this case, providing services to the public through their own business activities under an umbrella of public funding.”
The ministry has until July 8, 2016, to disclose a full copy of the record.