A Toronto-based doctor is calling on the federal government to commit to long-term funding for addiction treatment in northern Ontario First Nations. 

Dr. Chetan Mehta is part of a group of physicians who have worked in the Sioux Lookout region to address the oxycontin crisis.

Dr. Chetan Mehta

Dr. Chetan Mehta says suboxone treatment programs have made a 'profound' difference in Sandy Lake and other First Nations communities plagued by opiate addiction. (Supplied)

‚ÄčLast year, he was in Sandy Lake to help start people on suboxone, an opiate replacement therapy. 

"The feedback from the first 20 people was extremely profound," Mehta said. "Within a short time span, they saw their savings increase considerably. They didn't have to spend their grocery money to try and ... avoid withdrawal from their opiate dependence. Their family relations improved. The number of visits to the nursing station for emergencies dropped off." 

Mehta said 80 people were already enrolled in what was initially a three-month pilot project when he arrived.  Funding was extended for another 15 months, but as that period comes to an end, Mehta worries that people who need addiction treatment will no longer have access to it.   

"If that funding is not continued, then these programs are at risk of ceasing to exist, potentially," he said. "That would be a real travesty."

Mehta said that the suboxone program also showed positive results in other First Nations in the Sioux Lookout area. He said those communities are now trying to put together applications for renewed funding.  

Program funded until September

The director of Health Services for the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, Janet Gordon, said Health Canada tailors its funding for addictions programs to meet the needs of each community and that the current funding will last until September. She said Health Canada has not yet said what would happen after that. 

But she agreed a long-term funding commitment is needed.

"I think the government people that work in that area certainly understand that there is continued support that is needed in that area of health care."

In an email response to CBC News, Health Canada did not specify what would happen to the suboxone program funding in northern Ontario First Nations.

"Health Canada's Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) Program is continuing to provide coverage for methadone and suboxone, drugs used for the treatment of opioid dependency, to First Nation and Inuit clients who have been prescribed these drugs by their doctor," stated spokesperson Gary Holub in the email. "Suboxone is available to clients who are unable to take methadone due to life-threatening contraindications to methadone (e.g. serious cardiac reactions or other serious adverse events).  Other requests for suboxone treatment are reviewed on a case-by-case basis."

Methadone is another drug replacement therapy often used to treat addiction to opiates, including oxycontin.