British Columbia

Province, local governments could do more on overdose crisis, says federal health minister

In answer to calls for the declaration of a federal health emergency, Health Minister Jane Philpott says such a declaration would not help because B.C. is not making use of the tools it already has.

Jane Philpott says B.C. not making use of provided tools and governments blaming each other is not helpful

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott says a declaration of a public health emergency will only be made once all other options have been exhausted to deal with the ongoing overdose crisis in B.C. — but at this point, the province has not exhausted those options. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Federal health minister Jane Philpott says B.C. must reach "the absolute end of what it can do" before a federal health emergency will be declared over the overdose crisis — and as it stands, the province is not using all of its powers.

However, Philpott says the federal government remains "open to using every tool at our disposal to deal with this very serious national health crisis."

"There's no question this is unprecedented, that the escalating number of overdose deaths in this country are shocking, and we need to have all levels of government working together," she told On The Coast guest host Laura Lynch.

"The federal legislation around the Emergencies Act is a little different than around provincial declarations of emergencies … the federal government has to step in and declare a disproportionate emergency that requires the federal government to take over certain health authorities to respond to a crisis.

"If using that act were to provide us anything else we're not already doing, of course we would do that."

Opposition, B.C. gov't call for declaration

Philpott was responding to calls from both the federal Conservatives and the NDP, whose health critic, Don Davies, has been calling for such a declaration since November.

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake has also called for the federal declaration, but Philpott says that's not enough.

Left to right: B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake, NDP health critic Don Davies and South Surrey-White Rock MP Dianne Watts all want the federal government to declare a federal health emergency over the overdose crisis. (CBC; Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"At this point, they haven't pointed to anything in particular that they feel would allow them to do that which we're not already doing," she said.

"If Minister Lake feels they have literally reached the end of their resources, then certainly we will examine whether the Emergencies Act would allow us tools that we don't already have available."

Philpott says despite rising deaths, Davies was wrong to suggest no progress is being made by the federal government.

Philpott says the federal government has provided the province with other tools to deal with the crisis: new resources for treatment like opioid substitution therapy and making naloxone available across the country without a prescription.

"We certainly hope the province will make use of some of those opportunities," she said

"We have overturned the ban on prescription heroin and the provinces have not made use of that opportunity to be able to provide treatment."

Provinces, municipalities must do more

But while Philpott says the federal government has done everything it can, the City of Vancouver recently sent it a list of nine recommendations for helping with the crisis, such as daily meetings by the federal Health Ministry, a central command centre, improved drug and treatment services.

But Philpott says those are provincial responsibilities.

Overdose deaths claimed 914 lives in B.C. alone in 2016. (Chris Corday/CBC)

She added harm reduction will not be enough. Treatment and prevention are also required, and provinces and municipalities need to do more to address those aspects of the crisis.

"Many of these people need access to treatment," she said.

"They need to have their opioid-use disorder addressed in a way that any other health disorder would be addressed in this country and simply reducing the harms alone will not solve the problem."

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast

To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: Province, local governments could do more on overdose crisis, says federal health minister


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