Opposition parties unite to call for fentanyl public health emergency

Opposition parties issued a united call Monday for the government to declare a public health emergency on the fentanyl crisis but the minister in charge says that won’t give Alberta more resources than it already has.

MLAs held emergency debate in Alberta legislature on fentanyl deaths

(Left to right) Progressive Conservative MLA Mike Ellis, Wildrose MLA Angela Pitt, Alberta Party leader Greg Clark and Liberal Leader David Swann joined forces Monday to call on the government to call a public health emergency on fentanyl. (CBC)

Opposition parties issued a united call Monday for the government to declare a public health emergency on the fentanyl crisis but the minister in charge says a declaration wouldn't give Alberta any more resources.

Associate Health Minister Brandy Payne said calling a public health emergency doesn't give Alberta more access to federal funds.

"To this point, it doesn't give us any tools that we don't already have access to," Payne said.

Opposition parties disagree.
Associate Health Minister Brandy Payne said declaring a public health emergency won't give Alberta access to more tools for dealing with the fentanyl crisis. (CBC )

At a news conference, representatives from the Wildrose, Liberal, Progressive Conservative and Alberta parties argued the government needs a more coordinated approach for dealing with fentanyl, an opioid that killed 343 Albertans last year.

At an emergency debate in the legislature Monday afternoon, PC MLA Rick Fraser said declaring a public health emergency sends a message to those who have lost loved ones to overdoses. 

"It says not 'There, there,' but 'We're fighting for you. We recognize that this drug is overflowing our streets and killing our children and our loved ones.' "

Fraser said a public health emergency can help get agencies working together and prevent future deaths. 

The former Calgary paramedic reminded the legislature that fentanyl doesn't just affect people on the streets.

He told a story about responding to suburban home where a 14-year-old boy had stopped breathing and later died. 

"Each one of you in this house has a loved one, there's a good chance they may try a drug," he said. "And if that drug dealer pressed the other drug and that piece of carfentanil wasn't cleaned up, like that 14-year-old, an honest mistake takes their life."​

Naloxone kits not enough

Wildrose Justice critic Angela Pitt said the government needs to do more beyond providing naloxone kits to first responders. 

"This government has taken a singular, narrow-minded approach which involves primarily the use of naloxone," she said. "This is a Band-Aid solution and it has done nothing to address the serious addiction treatment problems or help get any of these drugs off our streets." 

During the debate, Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said that investments in frontline services to help with the crisis will cost money and she told MLAs to keep this in mind.

"I hope when it comes time for budget, when it comes time to make and pay those investments, that all of us will remember that this is the cost we are talking about," she said. 

The government indicated in the throne speech that it will move towards supervised consumption sites. 

After speaking about a relative who is dependent on opioids, Erin Babcock, the NDP MLA for Stony Plain, said harm reduction programs like safe consumption sites and opioid replacement therapy can help.

"Supervised consumption services provide Albertans who use substance with social supports, with medical care and with the opportunity to take a new path in life," she said.

"The evidence is overwhelming. Supervised consumption services save lives."

More treatment beds needed

At the news conference, opposition MLAs called on the government to open more addiction treatment beds and to offer more access to outpatient services, especially outside Edmonton and Calgary. For example, people needing a bed in Lethbridge need to wait three to six months. Liberal Leader David Swann said.

The opposition MLAs also said the government needs to coordinate the response from health care providers, law enforcement and human services.

Swann, a former medical officer of health, said the government needs to have a plan to avoid the current piecemeal approach to the fentanyl crisis.

"Get that coordination there, get the communications there, get the shared statistics and the plan that we're working with so that everybody knows what their role is," he said. "Currently everybody is doing their own thing and everybody is frustrated on the front lines."

Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark suggested declaring a public health emergency would also send a message to Ottawa that Alberta is facing the same fentanyl crisis as British Columbia.

"If the federal government is giving money to B.C. and is not giving money to Alberta, shame on the government of Alberta for not beating the doors down in Ottawa to get the same funding here in this province," Clark said.

"What in the world is our provincial government doing?"

'No shame in being human'

A woman who lost her partner to a fentanyl overdose in February 2016 made a plea to Premier Rachel Notley to do more.

Rosalind Davis said Nathan Huggins Rosenthal became addicted to opioids while taking Percocet for a back injury.  He eventually turned to fentanyl to feed his addiction.
Rosalind Davis lost her partner to a fentanyl overdose in February 2016. (CBC)

Davis said the government needs the political will to change how it treats people with opioid addictions.

"The current approach in Alberta is not working," she said. "We need the leadership of this crisis to be in the hands of those who can manage it efficiently and effectively."

Davis said services need to be available for when addicts are ready to accept help, and efforts need to be made to keep them alive until they reach that point.

"We need to meet people where they are. There is no shame in being human," she said.

"The real shame belongs to our government. The government is aware of the situation, and they are aware of the solutions. No other epidemic killing this many Albertans would receive such apathy."