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B.C. doctor fired for refusing COVID-19 shot loses bid to get hospital privileges back

A B.C. doctor who was fired after refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19 has lost her bid to get her hospital privileges back.

The Hospital Appeal Board has found that Dr. Theresa Szezepaniak’s refusal of the shot in 2021 amounted to neglect of her obligations as a hospitalist at Royal Inland Hospital, and the decision to take action on her privileges was appropriate.

Szezepaniak’s contract with Interior Health (IH) was terminated on Nov. 16, 2021 after she declined the vaccine, which was required to continue working in B.C. hospitals under an order from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. Her privileges, which granted her the right to provide care at Royal Inland, were officially cancelled by the health authority in August 2022.

“The appellant [Szezepaniak] says that IH is required to respect her exercise of her Charter rights,” an appeal board panel wrote in a Nov. 20 decision.

“The implication is that in order to respect her decision IH must not take any steps that hold the appellant accountable for the consequences of that decision. Having the right to make a decision, and your right to do so acknowledged, or respected, is not the same as being held responsible for the consequences.”

In other words, the decision says, Interior Health didn’t challenge Szezekpaniak’s right to refuse the vaccine, but it did hold her accountable for the fact that choice left her unable to work under provincial law.

Although the appeal board did not reinstate Szezepaniak’s privileges, it found the health authority should have suspended rather than cancelled them in August 2022, saying IH should have waited to cancel them if she wasn’t vaccinated in time for her next annual review.

Asked for comment on the case, Szezepaniak’s lawyer, Lee Turner, told CBC they are still reviewing the decision.

“I expect our client will be making a decision shortly on whether she will pursue a judicial review of the decision,” he wrote in an email.

The appeal board is a quasi-judicial tribunal where medical professionals can appeal decisions made by hospital administrators. Its decisions can be reviewed by B.C. Supreme Court judges.

‘An unjustified violation of her rights and freedoms’

Szezepaniak, who is now based in 100 Mile House — about 300 kilometres northeast of Vancouver — worked in B.C. hospitals for 21 years before she was fired. She had just begun working at Royal Inland Hospital in March 2020 when COVID-19 hit.

After vaccines became widely available for the virus, Henry issued a public health order requiring health-care workers to get the shot by Oct. 25, 2021 if they wanted to continue working in B.C. hospitals.

According to the decision, Szezepaniak submitted an exemption request to Henry right before the deadline, “on the basis of an unjustified violation of her rights and freedoms.” No exemption was granted and Szezepaniak was officially barred from working as of Oct. 26.

A few days later, the hospital’s chief of staff emailed to say there were three options for unvaccinated staff: obtain an exemption, resign or face cancellation of their privileges.

Szezepaniak replied with an email saying that she would not be “blackmailed or coerced into receiving an experimental injection,” the decision says.

On Nov. 12, a few days before she was fired, she sent an 18-page letter to a health authority manager titled, “NOTICE OF LIABILITY regarding the B.C. Government’s Mandatory Testing/Vaccination Policy.” Legal experts have told CBC that these documents, favoured by groups opposed to COVID-related public health measures, have no legal value.

Royal Inland Hospital is pictured in Kamloops, B.C., in June 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Even before the pandemic began, Royal Inland Hospital was “chronically understaffed and overworked,” the decision says, and the vaccination requirement only made the problems worse.

Those staffing issues actually fed into Szezepaniak’s firing, the decision suggests. Because a public health order barred her from working, terminating her contract her meant that the health authority would be able to begin recruiting for a permanent replacement.

In her submissions to the appeal board, Szezepaniak said having her privileges revoked has been difficult.

“She says … that no longer being able to describe herself as a hospitalist and having to explain that her medical staff position and hospital privileges were cancelled through a disciplinary process has caused her humiliation,” the decision says.

According to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C., Szezepaniak is a fully licensed doctor with no restrictions on her practice and no public discipline record.

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