Alberta's former PC government rejected $1.4M in drug treatment funding

Alberta's former PC government turned down more than a million dollars in federal drug treatment funding, citing tough economic times and a hiring freeze, at a time when fentanyl was killing about one person a day.

NDP government says it's disappointing money to help addicts was 'left on the table'

The province's then acting executive director of Addiction and Mental Health declined Health Canada funding under Ottawa's Anti-Drug Strategy Initiatives. CBC obtained the document under an Access to Information and Privacy request. (CBC)

At a time when fentanyl was killing an average of one person a day in Alberta, the former PC government rejected a $1.4 million grant from the federal government that would have helped fund drug treatment programs. 

Stephen Mandel was the minister of health when the former PC government declined $1.4 million in federal drug treatment program funding. The province's acting executive director of the Addiction and mental health branch wrote in March 2015 that Alberta couldn't afford to accept the money because of "fiscal constraints." (CBC)

In a letter dated March 16, 2015, obtained by CBC, Fern Miller, the province's then acting executive director of the addiction and mental health branch with Alberta Health, explained the Alberta government "is declining the opportunity to access Drug Treatment Funding Program (DTFP) funds at this time." 

Miller cited a number of factors for the decision, including "resource restrictions which will inhibit acquiring funding and staff."  

  • View the letter below 

The letter was sent to a senior advisor with Health Canada's Drugs Program, and was obtained through an Access to Information and Privacy request. It was written three weeks before former premier Jim Prentice called an election last May.

Miller cited the province's "current environment of fiscal constraint." The day the letter was written the price of oil sank to a then six-year low of $43.88 US a barrel. 

But Alberta Health officials confirm there were no strings attached to the money and the province didn't have to match it or contribute any of its own funds.

Province's rejection of funding unprecedented

In a briefing note, the federal minister of health was warned about potential questions from the media "as to why every province and territory is receiving funding except for Alberta."

Deputy Minister Simon Kennedy wrote "this is the first time that a P/T [province/territory] has declined Anti-Drug Strategy Initiatives (ADSI) funding after its proposal has been approved.

The former Conservative minister received a briefing note warning her about possible questions from the media surrounding Alberta's decision to decline funding for drug treatment programs. A decision described as unprecedented. (CBC )

The briefing note to then Conservative health minister Rona Ambrose also mentioned Alberta had been receiving funding from the Drug Treatment Funding Program (DTFP), which has been renamed ADSI, since 2009.   

The note also outlined how Health Canada offered to work with Alberta to assist in any way. It included an offer to extend the funding deadline, but the province officially declined in the March 16 letter. 

'Disappointed' money was left on the table

Alberta's new health minister says she found out about the previous government's decision just recently.

"Certainly it's disappointing to ever leave money on the table," said Sarah Hoffman.

Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said a working group is looking at research into e-cigarette safety. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Hoffman says negotiations with Health Canada have resumed in an effort to tap into the federal program. In the meantime, the province is contributing $600,000 towards an evaluation of drug treatment programs.

It's hoping the federal government will cover those costs along with even more funding to help drug addicts in Alberta.

"I'm glad that we continue to fund these important programs and hope that in partnership with the federal government we work to ensure we get the money moving forward and hopefully maybe even some retroactively," said Hoffman. 

Declining drug treatment money 'very disturbing' 

Alberta has the highest rate of fentanyl deaths in the country, according to the Calgary chapter of the John Howard Society, which helps people steer clear of a life of crime.

Assistant executive director Leslie McMechen says she was disappointed to hear the previous government declined the federal funding.

"We know that we have changed lives and saved lives with the information we have imparted," said McMechen.  

Leslie McMechan says it's 'very disturbing' to hear the former P.C. government declined drug treatment funding in the midst of the fentanyl crisis in Alberta. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

She's referring to a program run by the John Howard Society and funded through the Anti-Drug Strategy Initiatives.  

The society received $560,000 to help educate young people about the dangers of street drugs and the impact they could have on youth  — some of whom are battling more than drug addictions.  

"In 2015, we had the opportunity to talk to 400 kids, so a very significant number of kids," says McMechen. 

Chris is one of those kids. The 18-year-old spoke to us on the condition that his last name not be published. He had been using cocaine and crystal meth along with his medication for anti-depression.

Chris, who spoke to us on the condition that we not publish his last name, is staying at a residential facility for homeless youth. He told CBC reporter Bryan Labby that a program that teaches young people about the dangers of drug use saved his life. (CBC)

Chris spent three weeks in hospital following an overdose last year. He says the program taught him about the dangers of mixing illicit drugs with prescription medication.

"It tells you the risks and hazards," said Chris who's now sharing his knowledge with his friends.

"It helps me and it helps me show other people," he added.

He hopes to recover at a residential facility for homeless youth in southeast Calgary.

Health Minister Hoffman says negotiations with the federal government resumed in October and she's hopeful the money that was once promised for Alberta can be returned to the province.

"Every dollar that can be used towards saving a life is a valuable investment in Albertans and the future of our province." said Hoffman.


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