The number of illicit drug overdose deaths is continuing on its upward trajectory, prompting B.C.’s Health Minister to again call on the federal government to offer more help.
“We have the evidence to show that the federal government should call a state of emergency,” said Terry Lake, Wednesday during a press conference revealing the latest coroner statistics and new funding to address the overdose crisis.
“We haven’t seen the response that this type of epidemic requires on a national scale.”
BC’s Coroners office reported that 142 people in B.C. died as a result of a drug overdose in December — eight of which were in Kelowna. That brings the yearly total of overdose deaths across B.C. to 914 and in Kelowna to 48.
While this province is seemingly ground-zero for the opioid epidemic in Canada, Lake said there’s increasing proof that it’s also taken hold in other parts of the country.
“We are seeing it in Alberta and Ontario and in the US, there are states with three times the deaths of B.C.,” he said. “We need a national response and it has to be comprehensive as well.”
Kelowna Lake Country MP Stephen Fuhr said there are no plans for the federal government to call a state of emergency.
“The Minister of Health has said the government of Canada is already using every tool at its disposal and that the Emergencies Act would not grant any powers not already available,” said Fuhr.
Thus far the federal government has curtailed previous timeframes set for responding to applications for things like mobile supervised drug-consumption units, like the one Interior Health has said they will soon apply for.
That application has yet to be filed, but the cost of fighting this drug epidemic is rising rapidly.
Including $16 million announced this week, Lake said the province has spent $65 million in the last year trying to reduce the number of overdose deaths.
That approach has included overdose prevention sites, the widespread dispersal of naloxone kits and education. The new funds are dedicated to additional residential treatment beds, intensive outpatient services and the removal of financial barriers for opioid addiction treatment medication.
It’s yet been announced how many, if any, treatment beds will be designated for Kelowna with the new funds, but the need has been established.
Late last year The Capital News spoke with several street-entrenched drug users who said there was a wait time of six to 12 weeks for local treatment beds and they believed that to be they believed to be prohibitive.
In response Interior Health’s Dr. Trevor Corneil added context to the wait time list, saying that health officials were trying to increase access to beds for those people who are most at risk —those seen in an emergency room, repeatedly.
“There’s no doubt even though we are increasing our substance abuse beds, it’s still not enough,” he said at the time.
For all the effort being put in by health officials, and frontline workers, the number of deaths keeps rising and coroner Lisa LaPointe has said she doesn’t think will be a noticeable decrease anytime soon.
“The introduction of fentanyl is a game changer in a significant way,” said LaPointe.
In part it’s highlighted the high number of people who were probably using illicit drugs in the past.
It’s also shown that there’s a contaminant in the system that’s not manageable.
“Ideally we could get rid of it,” she said, adding that’s not likely.
What may help, she said, is further education. Fentanyl, she said, isn’t just showing up in injectible drugs. It’s also being laced with amphetamine and other drugs.
Plans for newest round of funding
Over the next year, up to 240 people with opioid addiction will receive intensive residential treatment in 60 additional new beds, including 20 for youth and 40 for adults. Another 200 people will have access to 50 intensive outpatient treatment spaces. These beds and outpatient spaces will target those who are most vulnerable and ready to seek treatment.
Both treatment options will be 90-day programs, followed by a year of crucial follow-up care in the community, including weekly group counselling and access to counsellors when issues arise.
The Province has allocated $10 million for the new services, which will start opening in spring 2017. They are expected to be delivered by a combination of both private and health authority providers, depending on the outcome of the request for expressions of interest process. Contracts and service agreements will provide for a consistent model of care, aligned with health authorities’ guidelines and clinical requirements.
The 60 new beds are in addition to government’s commitment to open 500 new addiction treatment beds. More than 300 new substance-use beds have already been opened in the past three years, with 100 more on track to open by the end of January and the remainder online by March 31, 2017.
In November, The Bridge Youth & Family Services was awarded an Interior Health contract aimed at creating eight new support recovery beds in Kelowna are set to serve the Central Okanagan.
Additionally, the Province will provide 100 per cent coverage for opioid substitution therapies to eligible British Columbians as of Feb. 1, 2017 under PharmaCare’s Plan G psychiatric medications program, which provides no-cost coverage to those with lower incomes.
Individuals who qualify for MSP premium assistance (those with an annual income under about $42,000, or slightly higher if they have a dependent) would be considered eligible for no-cost buprenorphine/naloxone or methadone under Plan G.
The Ministry of Health anticipates the initial cost of this expanded coverage to exceed $6 million a year.
The cost is projected to grow as more physicians are trained to prescribe buprenorphine/naloxone and once anticipated treatment guidelines recommending buprenorphine/naloxone as the preferred treatment option for opioid addiction are issued in the coming months.