10 clinics to share $2M in annual funding as Alberta looks to shift opioid treatment focus
Funding details still to be worked out, as associate minister says no sneak peeks on 'drug site' panel work
Ten government-funded opioid dependency clinics — mostly in and north of Edmonton — will get a piece of $2 million in annual funding over four years to nudge "psychosocial supports" for people experiencing addiction.
"Addiction and opioids in Alberta have caused a great many to suffer and some lost their life," Calgary MLA Jason Luan told reporters in a prepared statement Friday.
The associate health minister was joined by Dr. Robert Tanguay of Alberta Health Services at the funding announcement held at Sheldon M. Chumir Centre, the home of a supervised consumption site that has attracted vocal critics, including Luan, as well as supporters who say it saves lives.
"These high-output methadone clinics simply aren't working and what we really need to be doing is helping people with full, wrap-around support," Tanguay said.
Luan says the funding will make it easier to access addiction counsellors and therapists in addition to prescribed medical treatment, once the UCP government can figure out how to allocate it.
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"We are still in the midst of assessing where the highest need will be and allocating according to that, rather than a simple math, divided by 10 and here you go," Luan said.
"The demand from different areas and the coverage is all part of the factors that we are still assessing."
Four of the clinics are in Edmonton and four are in communities north of Edmonton: Bonnyville, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie and High Prairie.
There are two clinics in the south: Calgary and Cardston.
When asked about this geographic disparity by a Medicine Hat reporter, Luan said there are phone options and this is the first of many announcements.
"This is a step towards many steps you are going to see our ministry [take]," he said.
"We can have telephone reach out to other areas, particularly in rural areas that don't have a clinic."
He said doctors will be available using technology for remote diagnosis, meetings and assessment to make decisions for treatment.
Tanguay added the south is on the government's radar.
"We offer support through Telehealth to Opioid Dependency Program clinics throughout the province. Obviously the goal would be to see a publicly-funded AHS program open up in Medicine Hat," Tanguay said.
"We are hoping we have the opportunity to work with Medicine Hat."
The pair stressed the government's approach would now be more inclusive, a full continuum of care, as opposed to simply writing methadone prescriptions.
Tanguay is one of eight members of the government-appointed supervised consumption services review committee named in August.
The panel drew criticism from the get-go, when it was learned the panel was narrowly focused on the social and economic impacts of supervised consumption sites, excluding the health benefits and social issues surrounding drug abuse.
The opposition said in August the panel was rigged, "stacked with advocates of the discredited 1980s-era 'abstinence-only' approach."
Luan shot back at the time, saying the merits of supervised consumption sites — sometimes referred to as "drug sites" by Premier Jason Kenney — were already well documented.
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100% site success rate, says report
Consumption site staff across Alberta have responded to more than 4,300 overdoses and have a 100 per cent success rate at reversing overdoses, according to a recent report.
Consumption sites offer a supervised, clean location to consume illegal substances, as well as emergency medical care, education on the harms of drug use, and referrals to other social services.
As a panel member, Tanguay was asked Friday for an update on the panel's work.
Luan jumped in to say the question was premature.
"I'll take that one, rather than put him on the spot. The government has a commitment to the panel, that because of the expertise and knowledge, we want to respect what they have to say in term of finding the social economic evidence of social economic impact for the site," Luan said.
"So we made a commitment that we will not sort of a interfere with their work, we will wait until they finish and then they will bring the report back to us, so I am looking forward to that."
On the supervised consumption file, Luan has given critics of his neutrality plenty of ammunition.
In July, Luan tweeted and then deleted comments wondering aloud if big pharma was funding the research that supported supervised consumption sites, which a medical expert promptly called "laughably absurd."
At the time, his spokesperson said Luan was misunderstood.
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A month later, Luan told reporters he had learned an opioid overdose antidote, naloxone, might be an enabler of opioid abuse.
Calls for his firing came quickly by the opposition.
His spokesperson later clarified Luan was simply repeating what some families had told him.
Panel recommendations were previously promised by the end of fall. A ministry spokesperson said Friday the review should be done by year end and released in the new year, but with a date to be determined.
With files from Sarah Rieger, Robson Fletcher and Rachel Ward