Heliograph Episode 5: “Suspended” out now featuring the IJB’s own Declan Keogh

In this monthly install of the Heliograph: The Investigative Journalism Playbook, IJB reporters Wendy-Ann Clarke and Masih K interview one of the IJB’s own, Declan Keogh, on the bureau’s groundbreaking “Suspended” series. The series took a deep dive into a previously unexamined phenomenon of Ontarians losing their driving licences due to often unfounded medical conditions.

Listen now on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and wherever else you listen to your podcasts. 

By Mzwandile Poncana

The Intrigue/Tip

The genesis of the five-year longpart Suspended investigation was a conversation between reporter Declan Keogh and his aunt. Through her work at a treatment facility for people dealing with addiction, she had met clients who lost their driving licences even if they hadn’t been driving under the influence.  

He didn’t believe it.

“That just seemed so crazy to me, that people sought help and were immediately punished,” Keogh said.

His research led to an intriguing hypothesis: It was an unintended consequence of a government system that aimed to improve road safety by suspending the licences of those who may have medical issues affecting their ability to drive. Though well-intentioned, the system was arbitrarily stripping the ability to drive — a vital life line for those who live in rural or remote Ontario.

*A table compiled by Keogh and his team listing examples of different medical reasons for Medical Condition Report billings that led to licence suspensions. 

He searched past media coverage and found a couple of anecdotes and opinion columns covering the subject but nothing that probed the issue with an investigative mindset. He studied the regulations and laws surrounding the suspensions and eventually attended the hearing of a man who was appealing his licence suspension to the Licence Appeal Tribunal, a quasi-judicial body that adjudicates various disputes involving licences and motor vehicles.

After the man lost his appeal and the adjudicators and ministry lawyers had hung up the phone, Keogh was left alone on the line with him. He asked the man if he would like to share his story to a journalist. The man’s answer was a definitive no. It was among the worst moments of his life, he said.

Keogh realized the potential devastation caused by licence suspensions, which can imperil jobs, family relationships and mental health. Motivated by growing accounts of vulnerable people being punished for seeking healthcare, Keogh dug further.

The Process

He first began by filing a freedom-of-information request to the Ministry of Transportation. But that didn’t work. The ministry wanted more than $59,000 to access the records. So he found another way.

“Nobody’s ever in a million years going to look at this, so I’ll just do it. However long it takes me,” he said.

His research eventually led him to the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP), the provincial health insurance program. Once a provider completes a medical service, they bill the province for payment. Keogh combed the 1,000-page schedule of benefits which details the fees and their respective billing code.

On that list, he discovered a $36.25 fee the province pays to doctors when they issue a Medical Condition Report (MCR). Doctors are required to send these to the Ministry of Transportation when they suspect a patient may have a condition that could impact their ability to drive. After the ministry receives these reports, their licence is automatically suspended.

Because the Ministry of Health issues the payments to physicians, they also hold data on medical condition reports. 

“If you want to understand a system, you have to look at the paperwork,” he says. 

It took nearly two years to get the data from the ministry. In the meantime, Keogh and his IJB colleagues began attending more appeal tribunal hearings to build a database of hearing records. They eventually gathered 200 cases of what they believed were every appeal of MCR-related licence suspension. 

A third of those 200 appeals were successful, overturning the licence suspensions imposed by the province — a groundbreaking discovery that had never before been proven. 

In some cases, the tribunal found the drivers never even had the medical condition that was the basis for their suspension. In others, licences were reinstated because the suspension had gone on for too long or the conditions for reinstatement were too onerous and unfair. 

Interviews with drivers affected provided powerful accounts of the disastrous effect an unjustified licence suspension can have on people’s lives.

But even after publication, questions lingered: Why was the Ministry of Transportation so unwilling to provide details in their responses to the IJB’s questions?

“We sent them dozens of questions dozens of times and at some point very early in the process, they just stopped responding to us completely,” he said.

Reporters received a meager statement from the ministry that failed to address the majority of the IJB’s questions.  

So, Keogh and the team pressed further. 

To figure out why the ministry had been so intransigent, they filed a series of FOI requests asking for records related to their previous request for comment, as well as records related to any internal discussions in the ministry related to Suspended. 

“What we saw in the records was relatively explosive,” Keogh said. 

In one email, a senior ministry official forwarded questions to a colleague with an upside down smiley face in response which can “indicate silliness, sarcasm, irony, passive

Heliograph is a monthly podcast from the Investigative Journalism Bureau examining powerful investigative work by reporters from across the globe. 

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