British Columbia

Medical policy to blame for opioid crisis, says former mayor Sam Sullivan

Former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan says medical policy has made the fentanyl crisis worse, but the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons says he's mistaken.

'It's not a problem that was caused by a lack of money; this was caused by a change in medical policy'

Former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan says medical policy has made the fentanyl crisis worse. The B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons disputes his claims.

According to former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, the city's fentanyl crisis should be solved by changing medical policy not increasing taxes.

On Dec. 13, the City of Vancouver approved a new budget which includes a 0.5 per cent property tax hike to fight the overdose crisis. The city says it will use the tax to pay for addition firefighters, police officers and shelter space.

"This is a very complex problem," Sullivan said. "The city is doing something laudable, but clearly it's not just the money. It's not a problem that was caused by a lack of money. This was caused by a change in medical policy."

The former mayor and current MLA for Vancouver-False Creek claims the fentanyl crisis is due to those with opioid addictions being unable to get prescription drugs from doctors because of prescribing guidelines strengthened by the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons earlier this year.

"The doctors are in a really tough position because they now have to stop," he said. "Turning off and stopping the prescription of opioids is forcing people into fentanyl."

Sullivan's claims echo concerns raised by Maria Hudspith, executive director of Pain B.C. who said this past summer that her organization is hearing from concerned pain sufferers who no longer have access to drugs they need and are turning to the streets to acquire them.

College disputes claims

But Dr. Ailve McNestry, a registrar with the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons, strongly disputed the claims.

"Nowhere in our policy or our standard are we suggesting that patients opioid prescriptions be suddenly turned off," she said. "The medical evidence is very clear that that is not a wise route."

Opioid prescribing rules have not technically changed, she added, merely re-framed as "standards" from pre-existing "guidelines" developed in 2012.

McNestry said she does not believe doctors are prescribing fewer opioids since the re-framing.

"I would say that doctors are probably being more cautious about starting opioids and more cautious about increasing the dose when there's no clear evidence that it's objectively helping the patient," she said.

"If the college heard about a physician who abruptly stopped a patient's opioids inappropriately, we would certainly be very happy to investigate a situation like that."

The BC Coroners Service reported 622 British Columbians have died from illicit drug overdoses so far this year.

With files from The Early Edition


To listen to the interview, click on the link labelled Former mayor Sam Sullivan on Vancouver's fentanyl crisis and The B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons responds to Sam Sullivan's claims

now