London-based safe opioid supply program gets $6.5M boost from the feds

The London InterCommunity Health Centre is getting $6.5 million in funding from the federal government to support its safe supply program which aims to help those at high risk of opioid overdose.

The funding will support programs aimed at helping people at risk of opioid overdose

Dr. Andrea Sereda of London Intercommunity Health Centre runs the country's first Safer Supply program. (Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC News)

The federal government is investing $6.5 million into a controversial medical program based in London, Ont.

The funding is part of a wider $9.5-million investment to combat the ongoing opioid crisis that continues to be one of the most severe public health crises in the country's recent history.

The London-based Safer Supply Program offers safe, pharmaceutical-grade drugs to opioid users to help keep them alive. It was started by Dr. Andrea Sereda at the London InterCommunity Health Centre four years ago.

"This is actually a grant that we were successful in receiving way back in February of this year," said Sereda. "So we've been using the money and making plans and expanding the program since then."

Dr. Sereda started the Safer Supply program in 2016 after seeing a rash of opioid-related deaths that she believed were preventable.

"So, we were losing a lot of people and we knew that we needed to do things differently, and that's when the concept of Safer Supply emerged," she said. "With experience under our belt, working with patients and seeing their positive health outcomes, we incorporated more and more people into the program until we got to our current level of about 150."

Dr. Sereda said the situation became more dire in 2018 when fentanyl became more prominent on the streets, leading to an increase in overdoses.

"Our goals are to try and bring everybody in the program who could benefit, so that would be everybody who continues to use street drugs, who continues to use injection drugs and to give them a safe, clean prescribed pharmaceutical grade drug of a known dose and known purity so that they can be safe when they are using drugs."

The program aims to keep people from turning to street drugs, of which content and potency are unknown, and help wean them off of the substance to a path of recovery.

Dr. Sereda's program is now extending beyond the city to other municipalities across the province.

"We're currently engaged in a community of practice to support other prescribers across Ontario and in implementing Safer Supply in their own centres," she said. "So, we're actually launching that next week. But we have during the entire four-year course, mentored other physicians and other prescribers who see similar patient populations that we do."

The program will offer supervised consumption, harm reduction services, education and 24/7 on-call services for shelter residents. The federal government is committing support until at least Sept. 30, 2021.