British Columbia·FACT CHECK

B.C. NDP and Liberal opioid crisis plans short on details, say critics

The NDP has what it calls an action plan to deal with opioid crisis, but it is big on promises and short on details, says a UBC addictions expert.

Mom says fentanyl crisis does not appear to be a campaign priority

Paramedics work to revive a woman who overdosed in a public washroom. (Fred Gagnon/CBC)

NDP leader John Horgan did not talk about the public health emergency that is killing three or four people each day in British Columbia when he revealed his party's platform last week.

But tucked in the party's 106-page platform — on page nine — the NDP says mental health and addiction needs its own ministry.

The platform promises that  "a  B.C. NDP government will take an 'ask-once-get-help-fast' approach to mental health and addictions."

But the NDP platform, which appears bold on paper, does not say how many beds it will create for rapid treatment, nor how long it will take.

The B.C. Liberals, meanwhile, say they're spending $100 million dollars to combat the overdose crisis and will add 250 addiction beds by 2022.

However, a clinical psychologist with the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health says the NDP's promise of fast access to treatment is a promise without a plan.

Dr. Eugenia Oviedo-Joekes said the B.C. Liberals' approach is no better.

Eugenia Oviedo-Joekes, an addictions researcher with UBC`s School of Population and Public Health, says both the NDP and the Liberals lack a good plan. (CBC file photo)

"I would love to see a political party that will come with a well thought out change in drug policy — not promising 10 beds here, 100 beds there," Oviedo-Joekes said.

"It's not about what you want, it's about what the patient is ready to do.

"You cannot possibly think there is only one outcome for a person," said Oviedo-Joekes, who works with a heroin prescription program that has an 80 per cent success rate.

She said building a successful addiction treatment plan is not a guessing game.

Long waits for beds

Last September, a CBC investigation revealed long waits and difficulty accessing B.C.'s 2,600 addiction beds.

Families have repeatedly complained that finding a bed for a loved one willing to get help is nearly impossible unless they have deep pockets to pay private fees.

The NDP argues that the province has been funding too many outdated, abstinence programs that have a high failure rate for opioid addicts.

Some religion-based programs expel patients who relapse, even though these setbacks are a common symptom of opioid addiction disorder.

NDP candidate Selina Robinson says her party would transform what she calls `a broken system of addiction treatment in B.C.` (Selina Robinson)

"Throwing funding at beds that don't work is pointless – it's not a good use of tax dollars," said the NDP's Selena Robinson, who is running for re-election in Coquitlam-Maillardville.

A family therapist with experience in addictions,  Robinson said the New Democrats would license and regulate recovery houses and transform what she calls a broken system of addiction treatment in B.C.

"That is not a system — that is just shingles hung and people collecting money," she said.

"If we can clean up, regulate, license and get the support people need, I don't think we're going to need as many beds," said Robinson, who blames the B.C. Liberals for failing to build enough treatment beds in the years leading up to the overdose crisis.

"We have to build capacity because for 16 years this government has ignored capacity," said Robinson.

No beds number in NDP plan

The NDP says it would spend $35 million to enhance addiction treatment. But, they say they don't know what resources are needed to meet the needs of people struggling with addiction in the province.
"We don't even know how many beds (there are) because the numbers are all over the place — there's no accountability in their system," said Robinson. 

Michelle Jansen and her son Brandon the day before he died of a fentanyl overdose. (Michelle Jansen)

"I would love to see a political party that will come with a well thought out change in drug policy — not promising 10 beds here, 100 beds there," she said.

"It's not about what you want, it's about what the patient is ready to do."

Where is funding, asks mother

Michelle Jansen, whose son died of an accidental fentanyl overdose, said the Liberal promise of adding 250 beds by 2022 is insufficient.

"Do you know how many people are going to die by then?" asked Jansen. Her son Brandon, 20, died in March 2016, during his 11th  attempt at rehab.

Jansen said neither the Liberals nor NDP have made overdose prevention a top priority.

"Where is the funding for treatment beds to help these people overcome the addictions?" she asked. "I don't see it with the Liberals and I certainly don't see it with the NDP." 

Some of the faces of British Columbians who've died after overdosing on fentanyl. (CBC)

She says the addiction sector needs regulation as well as mandatory staffing levels and medical training.

"It`s because of the lack of those types of policies that regulate treatment centres — is exactly the reason my son Brandon died last March."

Deaths up 72 per cent

There are an estimated 180,000 people in B.C. struggling with addiction, according to a survey that found 4.4 per cent of people over 15 reported illicit drug use in 2015.

The problem has worsened in the last year with overdose deaths climbing dramatically, up 72 per cent in February 2017 from the previous February, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.

Jansen said the province needs a plan that keeps people alive, and which cuts through the stigma of drug addiction, which she believes has kept the opioid issue off the leaders' campaign talking points.

"If it had been some other disease that had come in and taken our people in our province,  close to 1,000 people last year, there would have been hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to it, with haste."

With files from Cathy Kearney and Manjula Dufresne