British Columbia·CBC Investigates

B.C. allocated 10 times more to fight swine flu than fentanyl crisis

B.C. put $80 million towards fighting swine flu, which killed 57 people in 2009. According to a freedom of information request, the province has allocated less than $6 million to the fentanyl crisis, which has killed more than 600 this year.

Mother of overdose victim feels too little has been spent on addiction treatment

Stacey Dallyn lost her 18-year-old son to a fentanyl overdose in March, and says there were no treatment beds in B.C. when he needed one. (Natalie Clancy/CBC)


  • After this story was published, the Ministry of Health sent a revised statement.

When 57 people died of H1N1, or swine flu, in B.C. in 2009, the province put $80 million towards fighting the flu pandemic.

But B.C. hasn't been quite as generous in combating fentanyl overdoses, which have killed 622 people this year alone.

Documents obtained by the provincial NDP through a freedom of information request show the province budgeted only $5.77 million to try and curb the growing number of illicit overdoses, which were declared a public health emergency in April.

"The fentanyl public health emergency was called an emergency, but it wasn't funded as an emergency," said NDP mental health and addictions critic Sue Hammell, who describes it as a "shocking difference."

She said much of the $5.77 million has gone to collecting data and getting the fentanyl antidote naloxone into the hands of drug users rather than addiction prevention and treatment.

"The results prove that the actions taken have not turned the tide. It gets worse," said Hammell, who accuses the province of now trying to play catch-up.

Fentanyl crisis underfunded, says NDP

NDP health critic Sue Hammell says low funding to fight B.C.'s fentanyl crisis shows the province has not taken the problem seriously enough. (Cliff Shim/CBC)

CBC News requested a tally of all provincial spending on the fentanyl crisis.

In a statement, the Ministry of Health said, "Health authorities have informed the ministry that they anticipate spending $5.77 million to support the work around the public health emergency this year."

Last week, the province announced an additional $5 million to help paramedics and dispatchers respond to fentanyl overdoses, and since then, Premier Christy Clark announced another $5 million towards a new B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

The premier also announced $5 million for a task force she appointed to deal with the crisis. But this money appears to be part of the original $5.77 million earmarked for the fentanyl emergency.

"Some, but not all, of this would come from the $5 million in strategies identified by the Joint Task force," the province's statement said. The province also says this does not include the costs of providing 15,000 free naloxone kits to drug users and a public awareness campaign, which is paid for from the health ministry's budget.

After this story was published, the Health Ministry sent a clarification:

"To date, we have invested over $15 million to prevent and respond to overdoses in British Columbia."

'How many deaths need to pile up?'

The families of some of the fentanyl victims are furious so little money is being spent to fight this crisis.

"How many deaths need to pile up before swift action is taken?" said Stacey Dallyn, whose 18-year-old son Jack Simpson died of an accidental fentanyl overdose on March 28. "You know, just find the funds and do it ... we're losing our youth."

Dallyn said that when her son was 16 and addicted to a number of drugs, including heroin, the family could not find a treatment bed anywhere in B.C. They ended up sending him to a private centre in the United States.

Paramedics and firefighters work to revive an overdose patient with repeated doses of naloxone, the antidote to opioids such as fentanyl. (Frederic Gagnon/CBC)

"We sent him to Utah because there were absolutely no treatment options here for his age group," Dallyn said.

The family spent half a million dollars on an 81-day treatment program, followed by a year of boarding school in Utah that included addiction counseling.

"You can't keep them safe, even with money," said Dallyn as she clutched a pendant around her neck that contains Jack's ashes.

She says that Jack returned to Vancouver in 2015, after having been sober for 18 months.

"Within three months he was down the rabbit hole again... He started smoking heroin," his mother said. "It's like ... just standing there and watching them drown."

Jack Dallyn, 18, seen here in a Utah treatment centre, stayed off heroin for 18 months until he relapsed after moving back to Vancouver. (Stacey Dallyn)

Dallyn still has trouble accepting that her son is gone.

"Every time I hear a skateboard roll by, I think he is coming home. He's not coming home," said Dallyn. "You look at your phone and you go to call him, you go to tell him something, and he is not there."

Too late to save Jack

During the last election, Premier Clark campaigned on a promise to create 500 new addiction treatment spaces by 2017. 

But the province has only created 220 beds, and internal Ministry of Health documents blame the failure to deliver those spaces on an inability to find vendors, as well as human resource issues.

The Health Ministry has repeatedly said there are 203 addiction and mental health beds for youth, but a CBC News investigation could not verify those beds exist. In a document obtained by CBC in a separate request, the province admits some of those beds are "dedicated for mental health treatment only."

Dallyn is disappointed the province has not invested more heavily in addiction treatment spaces for youth. While there is no vaccine for fentanyl, she says addiction treatment programs can save lives.

During the last provincial election campaign, Premier Christy Clark promised to create 500 new addiction treatment beds by 2017. The province has fallen well short of that pledge. (CBC)

Stigma of addiction

Eike-Henner Kluge, a medical ethics expert at the University of Victoria, suggested the disparity in public health spending on the current overdose epidemic compared to previous health emergencies may be due to the stigma of drug addiction.

"There is a perception out there, and it's a conservative, rigid, right-wing perception, that because they contributed to their own addiction, [the victims] don't have the same rights," said Kluge.

Back in August, four months after he declared the public health emergency, Dr. Perry Kendall, the provincial health officer, said B.C. was "in fairly tightly constrained budget times."

The province was boasting a $730 million dollar surplus at the time.

Kluge said the current criticism of the funding "is fair, because given that there is a surplus, they could have spent it differently." 

Kluge said the provincial government has the same responsibility to treat patients with addiction disorders as they do flu victims, and that it had a responsibility to create an opioid addiction treatment system before it became a crisis.

"You cannot simply blame the individual," said Kluge. "You have to treat the condition."

Read more on the fentanyl crisis

CBC News Investigates

If you have information on this or any other story we should investigate, email us:

Follow @NatalieClancy on TWITTER.