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In B.C., ‘immediate action’ on opioid crisis is open to political interpretation

B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark, B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver and B.C. NDP leader John Horgan at the debate on April 26, 2017. B.C.’s major party leaders exchanged jabs on the issue of the overdose crisis during this week’s televised debate, citing money spent – and not spent – as an indication of progress to date.

Wendy D

British Columbia's major party leaders exchanged jabs on the issue of the overdose crisis during this week's televised debate, citing money spent – and not spent – as an indication of progress to date. But were their comments accurate?

Responding to a question on what each candidate would do to address the crisis, NDP Leader John Horgan said his party would take "immediate action," suggesting the BC Liberals to date have not.

"Safe injection sites, critically important; enforcement, to make sure that fentanyl's not coming into the country; and working with the federal government, taking that $10-million that was in the federal budget and deploying it," Mr. Horgan said.

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"The BC Liberals haven't done that yet; it's sitting in an envelope somewhere waiting for action. We need to take action now."

Ottawa offered B.C. the $10-million earlier this year during negotiations to reach a 10-year health-care funding deal. Health Minister Terry Lake had initially decried the federal government's agreements with other provinces as a "divide and conquer" approach but said the additional money to combat the opioid crisis helped sweeten the deal.

The province has not yet spent the $10-million, however it is misleading to suggest the government is withholding it. At Vancouver city hall earlier this month, while providing an update on the crisis, provincial health officer Perry Kendall emphasized that while the $10-million is "very welcomed," it is but a one-time infusion.

"We're trying to use the $10-million … for one-time investments: training, building capacity, building networks, putting in place one-time capital expenditures, perhaps for supervised consumption sites," he said.

B.C.'s Joint Task Force on Overdose Response, which Dr. Kendall leads, has stated that the money will go toward increasing access to opioid substitution therapies such as buprenorphine-naloxone (Suboxone), increasing testing capacity at the B.C. Coroners Service and creating a new mobile response team of a dozen professionals.

In her response to the debate question, BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark said "we are leading the continent, in British Columbia: $100-million spent on supporting people finding their way to recovery and saving lives."

That ballpark estimate includes both money spent and money earmarked for the opioid crisis for fiscal years 2016-17 and 2017-18.

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The bulk of this money – roughly $30-million – is going toward operating costs for 500 addiction-treatment beds, according to the Ministry of Health. Of the 500, 231 are supportive-recovery beds, described as beds for people awaiting or returning from residential treatment, where clients can partake in activities such as vocational or educational planning.

Other bed types include transitional, residential and withdrawal management beds. However, the availability and nature of these beds cannot be independently confirmed as the ministry would not identify which facilities they are in.

Other funding includes around $17-million for B.C.'s health authorities, $10-million for the Joint Task Force on Overdose Response and $12-million for the B.C. Centre on Substance Use. Another $5.5-million is set aside for the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General's gangs-and-guns strategy.

The $10-million provided by the federal government is also included in the $100-million figure.

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