Funding delays for new supervised consumption services are unacceptable
On Friday, May 31, the UCP government announced that they will be suspending funding for supervised consumption sites currently under development in Medicine Hat and Red Deer, and a mobile consumption site in Calgary. Jason Luan, Associate Minister for Mental Health and Addictions, indicated that his party will also be conducting a review of all existing sites, and that they will be “looking at consumption sites in light of the whole strategy – the overall strategy of intervention and treatment. It is a whole scan, from awareness, prevention and intervention to treatment.” The review has halted the development of the three proposed sites, and its results could impact the continued funding of existing sites across the province.
It was a serious escalation in opioid-related deaths in Alberta that prompted a harm reduction response in the form of the approval of supervised consumption services, initially in 3 urban centres: Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge. The central tenet of harm reduction is the reduction of stigmas and judgments about drug use and addiction, and is based on the understanding that there are people who engage in these behaviors who are not willing or not able to stop doing so. Harm reduction aims to reduce the health risks associated with these behaviors, such as public safety concerns like public drug use and discarded needles, the transmission and spread of blood-borne infections, overdose, and ultimately death.
Supervised consumption services are an evidence-based intervention and public health approach. A primary consideration of these sites is to put people who use illicit or licit drugs in contact with other needed services, as the people who access harm reduction programs are often highly marginalized and without access to many mainstream health resources. Supervised consumption sites are often the first touch point into the health care system for many patients, enabling them to seek further treatment and other needed supports. As of February of this year, the 3 existing sites in Edmonton alone reported 15,335 referrals to other services and supports.
The UCP platform indicated that they would “conduct an evidence based socio-economic analysis of the impact of the existing drug consumption sites.” The evidence supporting the effectiveness of harm reduction strategies and safe consumption services is already exhaustive. “If the government is prepared to undertake a socio-economic analysis that serves to look at the differences between groups of people relating to their social class and financial situation, they better be ready to invest in services that will meaningfully address social inequities and the resulting social determinants of health,” said Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare.
What is clear is that we are in a midst of an overdose crisis – a staggering 10,300 Canadians lost their lives between January 2016 and September 2018, with Alberta trailing only British Columbia in rate of overdose deaths. Albertans need their government to take action to halting this devastating public health emergency, and not delay the implementation of critical life-saving strategies with an unnecessary, time-consuming review.
Friends of Medicare urges Albertans to contact Honorable Minister Jason Luan and Honorable Minister Tyler Shandro to let them know that we need leadership from this government in committing to evidence-based initiatives to address the ongoing overdose crisis. “Behind every review, statistic, policy and legislation, there are people and families that are impacted,” says Azocar. “It is simple, while politicians politicize, Albertans are dying.”