Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins says the provincial government will invest $222 million over three years to improve access to harm reduction services and addiction treatment amid an opioid crisis in the province.

"This is a public health crisis, provincially and nationally," Hoskins told reporters at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto on Tuesday.

"This is a national crisis comprised of literally thousands of individual tragedies. Each life lost represents a valued individual, individuals that I view with decency, with respect, with dignity and with worth."

There were a total of 865 opioid deaths in the province in 2016, a 19 per cent increase from the previous year, Ontario's chief coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer said Tuesday.

According to a provincial government news release, the funding will be used to hire more front-line harm-reduction workers, expand the supply of naloxone, and create new rapid access addiction clinics. Naxolone is medication used to block the effects of opioids. 

Toronto organizer Zoe Dodd

Zoe Dodd, a harm reduction worker, told reporters on Monday: 'We cannot afford to lose any more people and we are losing people at an alarming rate.'

Hoskins said he, along with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, are "stricken" by the magnitude of crisis and the number of overdose deaths related to opioid use in the province in recent months. 

"I want to recognize the mothers, the fathers, the brothers and the sisters who have had to face the pain of losing a loved one as a result of an opioid overdose. Your voices are integral to the strategy's success and I'll continue to look to your wisdom as we fight this crisis together," he said.

Hoskins added he also recognizes the work being done by front-line health workers under "incredibly difficult and emotionally challenging circumstances."

The announcement comes a day after more than 700 health care workers called on Wynne in an open letter to declare a provincial emergency due to a "disturbing" increase in overdose deaths. 

Hoskins said he decided not to declare a provincial emergency because the Ontario government already has the tools it needs to fight the opioid crisis, but has "answered that call with a highly substantial increase in funding." 

Safe Injection

Here is an example of an injection kit from a supervised drug injection facility. Funding announced in Toronto on Tuesday will go towards hiring more front-line harm-reduction workers, expanding the supply of naloxone, and creating new rapid access addiction clinics. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

A provincial emergency is typically short-term and short-lived and has a beginning and an end, he explained. 

"This is a long term crisis and it's one that we need to fight and fight vigorously. But it is not finite."

Many of the deaths due to opioid use disorder involve young people, according to Huyer. 

"There's a horrible number of deaths and many young people dying," he said.

Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health and provincial overdose co-ordinator, told reporters that the crisis is "complex and multi-faceted." 

Fentanyl Powder

The announcement of more funding to fight the opioid crisis comes a day after more than 700 health care workers called on Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to declare a provincial emergency due to a "disturbing" increase in overdose deaths related to opioid use in recent months. (CBC)

Williams noted the opioid crisis is found throughout the province and the response, with the help of the new funding, will be adapted to each community.

"One of the best things we can do to help those struggling with addiction is ensure that when the people reach out for help, it's there for them," Williams said.

According to the provincial government, the funding includes:

  • More than $15 million to support health-care providers on appropriate pain management and opioid prescribing;
  • More than $7.6 million to increase addictions treatment in primary care;
  • $70 million in long-term support for people who have addiction disorders;
  • $9 million to add more front-line harm-reduction outreach workers in communities across the province;
  • And, beginning in 2018-19, $20 million over two years for specialized support for Indigenous communities and developmentally appropriate care for youth.

Hoskins said the government will continue to consult health care workers in the coming months if more action is needed.

"The lives of drug users and people living with addiction matter," he said.

"You are valued and important. You are not alone. You deserve high quality care that is dignified and compassionate. When you seek help, there should be no wrong door."