British Columbia·Analysis

'There's definitely blood on the premier's hands': B.C. government fails to deliver fentanyl crisis fix

The way Michelle Jansen sees it, if a gunman was killing two young people a day in B.C., the government would send in a SWAT team. That's roughly the toll of the province's fentanyl crisis. Premier Christy Clark says her government is "making progress" to improve treatment, but heartbroken parents who spoke with CBC News aren't convinced.

Christy Clark not on track to meet campaign promise to add 500 treatment beds by 2017

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

The way Michelle Jansen sees it, if a gunman were killing two young people a day in B.C., the government would send in a SWAT team. 

She's the sixth grieving mother I've met who lost a child to a fentanyl overdose this year.

Her son Brandon, 20, died in March and she's also grieving her younger son's 16-year-old girlfriend, Gwynevere Staddon, who died in August.

"It's a crisis and nothing has been done," said the outspoken critic of the federal and provincial response to B.C.'s public health emergency.

"There's definitely blood on the premier's hands."

The Coquitlam mom says appointing a cash-strapped task force was a woeful response from Premier Christy Clark.

"If it were the premier's son or daughter who lost their life … I wonder how quickly would you move to make some changes?"

Premier playing catch-up

Clark campaigned 3 ½ years ago to create 500 new addiction treatment spaces in B.C. by 2017, and she insists the province has made progress.

"That progress is never going to be enough for someone who has lost a loved one," she said in an interview with CBC News. "Every one of those losses is a tragedy."
'People have an absolute right to blame Christy for not delivering those beds,' says the NDP's Sue Hammell of B.C. Premier Christy Clark's expected failure to create 500 new addiction treatment beds in the province by 2017. (CBC)

A statement from B.C.'s Health Ministry says the government is "committed to opening 500 substance use beds and are on track to meet our target in 2017."

On track?

When did "by 2017" change to "in 2017"?

In a crisis where minutes matter, a delay of up to 12 months will cost lives.

The province has only created 220 new beds.

"We said 2017, we mean in 2017, so if we can get there in the middle of 2017 rather than September, or we can get there in February, we are keeping that promise" Clark said.

Lack of resources

The fact is the province is struggling to play catch-up in this fentanyl crisis. There's no way to spin it, try as Clark might.

"Every one of these deaths is preventable," the premier said on July 27, as she announced her task force of experts to tackle the problem.

Task force co-chairman Dr. Perry Kendall, the provincial health officer who declared a public health emergency in April, admits the group is limited.

"Will we get everything we want? We know we are in fairly tightly constrained budget times," said Kendall, who explained that any resources for the task force must be diverted from other government programs.

Overdoses killed 249 people in B.C. last year, and 62 per cent of those were linked to fentanyl. The fact that death toll could triple this year is no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention.
Some of the faces of British Columbians who've died after overdosing on fentanyl. (CBC)

The home-made and deadlier version of the powerful painkiller is also headed east and some of Clark's fellow premiers might soon have to come up with a response of their own.

Late last year, 73 addiction specialists handed Clark's government a report urging it to act quickly to save lives.   

Eighty people died of drug overdoses the next month alone.

Missed opportunities

The report recommends urgently investing in evidence-based addiction treatment for opioid users, to focus spending on treatment that actually works and to stop funding old-fashioned abstinence programs that have a high failure rate for opioid addiction.

"If these evidence-based recommendations are enacted quickly, B.C. has the potential to dramatically reduce fatal overdoses," the report concludes.
Dr. Keith Ahamad says he’s frustrated by the barriers that remain for his patients seeking help. (CBC)

Dr. Keith Ahamad, one of the report's authors, says he's frustrated by the barriers that remain for his patients seeking help.

"Because of the stigma of addiction, any other disease we would have mobilized a long time ago," he said.

He was relieved when the province lifted restrictions on Suboxone, a pill version of methadone, in July — eight months after the report recommended it.

Most treatment not evidence-based

Suboxone is a proven treatment for opioid addiction, but CBC News found only 35 per cent of the province's treatment providers allow the drug, which curbs cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Even the task force's co-chairman wonders why the province continues to fund recovery beds that use outdated methods.
NDP addictions critic Sue Hammell says if the province was faced with some other kind of deadly disease outbreak, 'there would be a fix right now.' (CBC)

"If you look at the addiction system, a lot of what's done out there isn't evidence-based and it's not very effective … so there's a lot of change that needs to happen," Kendall said.

Internal documents show the Health Ministry knew back in 2015 that it wouldn't meet its 500-bed promise by 2017, and blamed "unexpected delays such as not being able to identify a qualified vendor, necessary renovations, and human resource issues."

Human resources? Vendors? NDP addictions critic Sue Hammell says if the province was faced with some other kind of deadly disease outbreak, "there would be a fix right now."

"The consequences have been life or death, so this is not acceptable"

Where are the youth beds?

The Health Ministry says there are 203 publicly funded residential treatment beds for addicts ages 12 to 18, but CBC researchers could only verify 117.

We also found only 24 private beds, which charge as much as $76,000 for a six-month program.

B.C.'s child advocate insists only 20 provincially funded addiction beds are available, after her recent review of the province's addiction services.

This story is part of a CBC investigative series on the fentanyl addiction crisis in B.C. and its implications for the rest of Canada. Read more in the upcoming series:

When CBC News asked for a list of all youth treatment beds, the ministry suggested we file a Freedom of Information request.

"There are safety and privacy concerns about revealing the location of specific youth substance use services," spokeswoman Kristy Anderson said in a statement.

To which the NDP's Hammell responded: "I can't find them and families can't find them, you can't find them, I don't think they exist."

'I don't have $50,000'

Veronica Staddon couldn't find one earlier this summer when her daughter Gwynevere needed rehab.

The only bed she found was at a private centre that required cash upfront.

"I don't have $50,000 available," Staddon said.
Veronica Staddon couldn’t find a publicly funded treatment spot when her daughter Gwynevere needed one. The teen died from a suspected fentanyl overdose in a coffee shop washroom. (courtesy of Veronica Staddon)

The Coquitlam teen took her last hit of fentanyl a week before her 17th birthday.

She was found unresponsive in a coffee shop washroom and couldn't be revived.

"To say you get treatment for your kid depending on how fat your wallet is, is unacceptable," Hammell said.

So is pretending your drug crisis strategy is on track when it's clearly so far behind.


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Edited and packaged by Dave Pizer