'Our aim ... is to keep people alive': Alberta invests $30M to deal with opioid crisis

The Alberta government is setting up a 14-member commission with a $30-million budget to deal with the skyrocketing numbers of deaths caused by overdoses of fentanyl and other opioids.

Province also appoints 14-member commission to make recommendations to minister

Associate minister of health Brandy Payne will announce the Alberta government's plan to tackle the opioid crisis. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The Alberta government is setting up a 14-member commission with a $30-million budget to deal with the skyrocketing numbers of deaths caused by overdoses of fentanyl and other opioids.

The Minister's Opioid Emergency Response Commission will be chaired by Dr. Karen Grimsrud, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, and Elaine Hyshka, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Alberta, who is also involved with the coalition setting up a supervised consumption site in Edmonton.

The commission will make recommendations to the minister on how to corral and coordinate resources and fight what the government is declaring a public health crisis.

"Our aim at this point is to keep people alive," Grimsrud said.

Commission member Dr. Nicholas Etches, medical officer of health in the Calgary zone, said opioid overdoses killed more Albertans last year than motor vehicle collisions and homicides combined.

The government remains reluctant to declare the crisis a public health emergency, as British Columbia has done, because that carries legal implications officials say are not required. The government says B.C. needed to declare an emergency in order to collect and share information among health authorities. Alberta has only one health region so that provision isn't required, officials say.

Other people involved in the commission include Petra Schulz, an Edmonton mother whose son died of a fentanyl overdose in 2014, Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, the physician lead for the Aboriginal Health Program with Alberta Health Services, and Marliss Taylor, a registered nurse who is program manager for Streetworks in Edmonton.

A regulation under the Public Heath Act allows the minister of health to use existing powers to ensure Albertans have better access to addiction treatment or acute care, and to increase the type of workers that can inject naloxone. 

Currently, firefighters, paramedics and police officers can inject naloxone. The minister could decide to extend that to social workers and teachers. 

Lack of transparency

The commission will start meeting in mid-June. Commissioners are being asked to come up with recommendations on how to best spend the $30 million allocated to fight the crisis. 

Opposition party critics say they still want the government to call a public health emergency. 

Liberal Leader Dr. David Swann said he wants to see a concrete plan, a leadership team that can be held accountable and monthly reporting on deaths caused by all opioids, not just fentanyl.

He also has questions about the role of the committee.

"It certainly is going to take the heat off the government," Swann said. "And the question is, is it going to be more advisory, and to what extent are they going to influence real decisions?" 

Progressive Conservative MLA Mike Ellis said he is happy the government is taking action but he worries about a lack of transparency around the committee's work. 

"What will these recommendations be?" he asked. "Are Albertans going to know what they are and are we going to know if they are going to be enacted?"

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean said he wants Alberta to declare a public health emergency, something British Columbia did in April last year.

The emergency status triggered new powers allowing officials to collect real-time information on reported overdoses. That data helps pinpoint new spikes quickly, allowing medical service staff to warn and protect those at risk.

"I truly think that the NDP government here in Alberta have taken too long to get to this point, two years," Jean said. "There's no mechanism for accountability within the bill itself and that's very concerning."

Fentanyl killed 113 people in Alberta in the first three months of this year and 363 people in 2016.