News

End of blood ban for gay men could be on horizon in wake of new mandate letters

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor was explicitly tasked with developing a 'long-term vision' for blood services that is 'non-discriminatory in donation policies.'

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor was tasked in her new mandate letter with ending discriminatory donation policies in Canada's blood services system. Hill Times file photograph

PUBLISHED :Friday, Oct. 6, 2017 10:06 AM

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked his new health minister to help end discriminatory blood donation policies, hinting that a long-standing ban on gay men giving blood could come to an end in the near future.

In her revised mandate letter released Wednesday, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor (Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, N.B.) was explicitly tasked with developing a “long-term vision” for blood services that is “non-discriminatory in donation policies.”

The directive wasn’t listed in the original mandate for the former health minister Jane Philpott (Markham-Stouffville, Ont.), who was named Indigenous services minister in August, as part of the shuffle that saw Ms. Petitpas Taylor promoted to cabinet.

Yves Comeau, communications director for Ms. Petitpas Taylor, told The Hill Times via email that the health minister’s office understood the passage to mean she has been asked to work towards donation policies that “are not based on who you are or who your sexual partners are,” all the while ensuring the “safety and security of Canada’s blood supply.”

  

Originally, gay men, or more correctly men who have sex with men, were indefinitely barred from giving blood after being designated a high-risk group amidst the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

The ban was scaled back in 2013 to a requirement that prospective male donors abstain from sex with men for five years before donating. It was eventually reduced to one year in 2016 by Health Canada, at the urging of Canadian Blood Services (CBS), the not-for-profit organization that manages the national supply of blood, blood products, and stem cells for every province and territory save Quebec.

When reached for comment on the new mandate letter, Ross FitzGerald, strategic communications specialist with the CBS, said the organization was exploring “alternative screening approaches” for blood donors that could “evolve” the current eligibility criteria for men who have sex with men.

Using federal funding, the CBS and its Quebec counterpart Héma-Québec are financially supporting research projects investigating “various aspects” of blood and plasma donors’ eligibility criteria and screening process, and recently brought together experts from around the world for a two-day meeting on “research priorities” needed to inform prospective changes to the eligibility process, he said in an emailed statement.

  

However, Mr. FitzGerald didn’t answer whether the CBS has been in communication with Ms. Petitpas Taylor’s office on potentially changing the eligibility criteria for men who have sex with men.

Advocates have long claimed that the ban was discriminatory and unscientific, with prominent Canadian HIV researchers Paul MacPherson and Mark Wainberg recently saying it’s wrongheaded to single out gay men.

“If you’re a man in a long-term, stable relationship and you and your partner are both negative, then the risks are exactly the same as those of a heterosexual couple,” said Dr. Wainberg, as reported by Global News last year.

“All gay men are not at risk for HIV,” added Dr. MacPherson.

  

“A good proportion of gay men, like heterosexuals, are in monogamous relationships. So yes they may have had sex yesterday, but if they’re in a closed partnership, you can’t introduce HIV unless they’re having sex with multiple partners.”

There were also new sections added to the health minister’s mandate letter tasking Ms. Petitpas Taylor with supporting legislation legalizing the recreational use of marijuana and advancing strengthened measures addressing the opioid crisis, including ensuring a “consistent and timely surveillance system” for monitoring and reporting overdoses and related deaths.

She was also handed new commitments to improve Canadians access to necessary prescription medications, including joining provincial and territorial governments to negotiate common drug prices; and exploring the need for a “national formulary,” essentially a master list of prescription drugs that details key information on their composition and administration. It also lists which drugs are interchangeable.

A reference in Ms. Philpott’s mandate letter to developing a national health accord was removed, what with Ottawa already reaching individual agreements on health funding with all 13 provinces and territories.

Conversely, a section was added tasking the new minister with promoting and defending the Canada Health Act to make it “absolutely clear that extra-billing and user fees are illegal under Canada’s public medicare system.”

Revised mandate letters were also released earlier this week for the other ministers implicated in the August cabinet shuffle.

The updated mandate letter for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett (Toronto-St. Paul’s, Ont.) lays out how files and priorities will be allocated amongst herself and Ms. Philpott.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) announced in August that he planned on dissolving Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) into two new ministries, which would then be named after the portfolios held by Ms. Bennett and Ms. Philpott.

In the shuffle, Ms. Philpott was moved from health to her new role, while Ms. Bennett saw her existing ministerial responsibilities for INAC narrowed.

According to the new mandate letters, Ms. Bennett is responsible for increasing the number of “comprehensive modern treaties and new self-government agreements,” as well as working with the justice minister to ensure “dispute resolution mechanisms and litigation” are consistent with the principles of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

She has also been assigned to work with the justice minister to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, supporting the public services and procurement minister in transforming 100 Wellington into a national space for Indigenous peoples, and cooperating with the Nunavut government and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. to “advance devolution” in the northern territory.

As well, Ms. Bennett now holds the responsibilities for implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and handling the tribunal investing missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

Meanwhile, Ms. Philpott is directed in her new mandate letter with ensuring the “successful delivery” of government funding commitments for housing, infrastructure, and water in First Nations communities, and of child welfare and health care services to Indigenous peoples.

She’s also set to assume responsibility for the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada, which will soon be under the purview of her department.

There were also a handful of changes to the mandate letter to new Sport and Persons with Disabilities Minister Kent Here (Calgary Centre, Alta.). Most notably, Mr. Hehr is now assigned to work with the Indigenous services minister to “leverage investments” in Indigenous youth and working with the infrastructure and communities minister to make public transit “more accessible” and creating “reporting obligations for provinces and territories” on transit dollars.

Meanwhile, new Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan (St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, N.L.) was directed in his revised mandate letter with creating two new centres of excellence in veterans’ care, including one specializing in mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder, and related issues for veterans and first responders.

Finally, the revised mandate letter for new Procurement and Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough (Delta, B.C.) brought in several significant changes, including tasking the minister with overseeing the sweeping renovations in the Parliamentary Precinct and the subsequent relocation of the House of Commons, Senate, and other offices; and improving the Translation Bureau, which was the subject of a House committee report last year that outlined concerns about cost-cutting and declining work volumes.

However, there was no reference to having the minister participate in the competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft, despite it being listed as a priority in the original Nov. 2015 mandate letter handed to Ms. Qualtrough’s predecessor, the now-retired Judy Foote.

Links to the mandate letters can be found here.

mvigliotti@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times