Features

Jennifer Jackson – Vancouver Coastal Health 

In-house approach provides healthy legal support for VCH 

Imagine a healthcare provider that sees patients of all ages then seeks outside opinions on diagnoses, treatment options and patient follow up. 

That certainly isn’t how Vancouver Coastal Health works with 1.25 million provincial residents living in more than 35 communities and the city of Vancouver in British Columbia.

However, VCH General Counsel Jennifer Jackson says it was how the quasi-governmental health authority had managed its legal affairs—outside counsel was used for the bulk of the legal work. 

That’s changed since she joined the organization in 2021. She and her team of 14 manage everything from real estate to construction and contracts, legislative compliance and HR issues. Part of her team is comprised of corporate commercial solicitors who handle contracts and service agreements ranging from vendors to nursing care and intellectual property, too. 

“For a long time, I think the organization saw lawyers as a barrier,” Jackson says. “Now we have been shifting that culture to us enabling the organization. We have built trust and provided a safety blanket. It’s understood we’re here to accelerate the objectives of the organization. The structural changes to our team and how we report to our internal organization have been really helpful.” 

Set to expand 

As one of five regional health authorities established and governed by the British Columbia Ministry of Health, VCH operates a network of more than 120 locations that include 13 hospitals, long term care and assisted living facilities, community health centers, hospices, and mental health clinics. 

Currently, Jackson and her team are helping VCH expand the emergency care it delivers. She says the health authority’s emergency departments have become overcrowded and because they’re frequently located inside other facilities, they lack space. 

However, before spaces can be expanded or new ones built, she and her team are conducting an assessment that includes reviewing existing contracts and leases, as well as whether VCH should open temporary or permanent emergency departments. 

Questions of consent 

Jackson and her team are also adapting to changes in federal and provincial laws affecting VCH operations. For instance, there’s the recent change to Canada’s MAID law.  

The MAID (the acronym for medical assistance in dying) law was passed by the Parliament of Canada in June 2016, more than a year after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that prohibiting medical assistance in dying did not meet the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  

Adult consent for assistance in dying is allowed for individuals suffering from a serious illness, disease or disability who are in an irreversible state of decline. However, those who were suffering from mental illness weren’t allowed to give consent. 

The law was amended in March 2021 to allow eligibility for Canadians whose only medical condition is a mental illness and who meet all other eligibility criteria, although the date of eligibility isn’t until March 17, 2024. 

The legal issue Jackson and her team are working through currently is how to handle the consent requests—are individuals with mental illnesses in a position to request assistance in dying? 

“This is about patient safety,” Jackson says. “We’re willing to tolerate a certain amount of risk as a business—that is fine along as you are balancing it with ensuring the safety of our patients.” 

Expanded compliance 

Jackson and her team are also working on how to comply with the expansion of British Columbia’s Public Interest Disclosure Act, or PIDA. The whistleblower protections were initially enacted for staff in government ministries on Dec. 1, 2019, and are being expanded to include government agencies, boards and commissions, including the five provincial health authorities. 

To comply with PIDA, Jackson needs to designate a member of her legal team to hear, report and investigate confidential complaints and concerns regarding issues affecting the public interest. Her team will annually report the number of complaints received as well as results and any investigations. 

Jackson and her team also ensure anyone filing a complaint is treated fairly and protected from reprisals such as demotions or terminations. 

Always advocating 

From her early childhood growing up in the neighboring province of Alberta, Jackson says she knew she wanted to be an attorney. 

“I love the idea of advocacy and I’ve never stopped debating,” she says. “I’ve been doing it pretty much since I was able to talk.” 

Jackson earned degrees in business and law from the University of Alberta and became an associate at Field Law in the Edmonton area in June 2007. She practiced in litigator and solicitor roles in areas including Aboriginal law, employment law and wills and estates. 

In January 2014, she moved to the public sector as she became senior legal counsel for the provincial government of Alberta, working again as a litigator and solicitor in Aboriginal law and in the child welfare and maintenance enforcement group. 

Jackson’s work in health care began in April 2017 when she joined Alberta Health Services, which like VCH, is a quasi-governmental health care organization, as legal counsel. She held that position until moving west to join VCH as associate general counsel in 2021. 

Jackson currently resides in a mountain town in British Columbia and enjoys rock climbing and running 100k ultramarathons. 

At VCH, she says the restructured legal team and in-house expertise help ensure the organization’s health. 

“We went from a flat structure and have brought it together so specific lawyers are working in teams with layers above and below them,” Jackson says. “We have gained recognition from the executive and board levels that we exist and it has allowed us to show and demonstrate how we can enable them to meet our mission.” 

View this feature in the Vanguard Spring I 2024 Edition here.

Published on: March 15, 2024

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