Rhonda Matters

As chief mental health and addictions officer, clinical psychologist Rhonda Matters will be responsible for developing a new long-term strategy for addictions treatment on P.E.I. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

The P.E.I. government has created a new position as part of its strategy for dealing with drug addictions in the province.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Rhonda Matters was named the province's first chief mental health and addictions officer as government outlined its first steps towards improving treatment for mental health Friday afternoon. Matters will be responsible for developing a long-term treatment plan.

“This is a complex file and there is still more work to be done," said Health Minister Doug Currie in a news release.

Currie also announced:

  • Aggressive new prescribing guidelines to reduce misuse of prescription drugs.
  • A new inspector to investigate irregularities in prescribing.
  • Expanding methadone treatment access, including the creation of a community-based, low-threshold methadone clinic.
  • Expanded access to suboxone, a methadone alternative, for youth.
  • A 10-bed transition unit for patients who have completed detox but need further support.

The government will invest about $1.2 million in immediate action to deal with the rise in prescription drug addictions.

Opposition disappointed

Opposition health critic James Aylward said Friday's announcement was lacking in substance. Aylward said he was hoping for more action, rather than another promise of action.

"I look forward to meeting with Dr. Matters and talking with her, and hopefully seeing what she can bring to the table," said Aylward.

"But we're hearing now that she's going to be writing yet another report. We say this over and over again, when are the reports going to stop, and when are we going to have action?"

The government needs to address wait times for the detox program, said Aylward, and points out his party has been calling for a 24-7, residential addictions treatment facility since 2011.

Auditor General found no comprehensive plan

The strategy is being presented against a background of signs that prescription drug addiction on P.E.I. is growing at an alarming rate.

Doug Currie

Health Minister Doug Currie delivers a new strategy for dealing with drug addictions on P.E.I. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

Doctors have told a legislative committee looking into the problem that there are about 250 people in the province's methadone program with dozens more on a waiting list.  In 2004 there were just six people in the methadone program.

Concerns over treatment for mental health and addictions problems in the province first came to the public eye in 2012.

In a special audit, then auditor general Colin Younker found there was no comprehensive long-term plan for community mental health, and average wait times were two to three times the target wait time of 28.8 days.

He also found a lack of co-ordination between government departments including health, community services and justice, and a lack of communication between hospitals and community mental health when clients were admitted to hospital.

The audit led to the government commissioning MRSB to conduct a review of mental health and addictions treatment in the province. That review was completed early this year, and Currie originally pledged to make it public in April. Since then he has said he was not happy with government's response to MRSB's findings, and several times he has delayed the release of the information.

In the spring 2013 sitting of the legislature addiction to prescription opioids became one of the major topics of debate. Government introduced a new bill giving it increased powers to monitor prescriptions handed out by doctors and dentists.

Currie acknowledged in the spring P.E.I.'s addictions treatment program for youth, the Strength program, wasn't working for some clients and the province needs a new long-term treatment program. Parents of addicts, as well as the official Opposition, have been calling for a residential treatment program for youth, similar to the Portage facility in New Brunswick. The current Strength program runs eight weeks, and has been criticized because it's primarily a day program, with most youth going home on evenings and on weekends.