P.E.I. failing those with mental health and addictions issues, say opposition parties
Premier pledges more money for methadone, but province puts no timeline on opening of a safe consumption site
Both the Greens and the Liberals criticized how the P.E.I. government supports its most vulnerable citizens during question period Wednesday — saying it's failing those who struggle with mental health and addictions issues.
In response, the premier promised more funding for opioid replacement therapy, and said his government is working to support Islanders "who fall through the cracks" in government addiction and housing services.
Some of the criticisms referred specifically to issues raised in a series of articles published Wednesday by local newspaper chain Island Press on mental health and addictions, the result of a year-long investigation.
"Too many Islanders are living in crisis," said Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly.
We have to meet people where they're at.— Minister of Social Development Brad Trivers
"We have Islanders sleeping outside in roughed-in porches because they can't access shelter beds. We have Islanders re-using needles and disposing them on sidewalks and in parks."
Some are turned away from shelters
When asked if the province was turning people away from shelters, Minister of Social Development and Housing Brad Trivers said he couldn't deny it.
"We have to meet people where they're at, and it is extremely difficult in many cases. Every individual is different. There are complex needs," Trivers said.
"Sometimes, we just simply cannot meet the person where they're at and we're working to improve every day until we can."
Trivers said opening an outreach centre in Charlottetown two years ago has "made a huge difference" in the lives of the people who use it. On average, there were 160 unique clients using the centre on a monthly basis from October to December 2021, according to a recent presentation to the province's standing committee on health and social development.
Opposition leader Peter Bevan-Baker asked why some Islanders have to pay for their own prescriptions for products like methadone under the province's opioid replacement therapy program.
Premier Dennis King seemed incredulous that was the case, but committed to changing it.
"Funding methadone seems to me a very simple solution, something that we should be doing" the premier said. "I'll commit to implementing that as soon as possible, because I think it's just one of those things that I can't believe we don't do, that we should be doing."
In an interview afterward, Health Minister Ernie Hudson confirmed some who receive opioid replacement therapy outside of P.E.I.'s provincial addictions treatment program don't have their costs covered.
While he said he would change that, he said he couldn't put a timeline on when more funding would be made available, other than to say he wouldn't wait for a new budget cycle to make the change. There was no funding in the budget tabled by government last week.
"It has to be seamless, it has to be rapid and it has to be free of charge," Hudson said of providing opioid replacement therapy, saying he has directed his staff to make the necessary changes.
No timeline on harm reduction site
It's not clear how quickly the government is prepared to move on another issue raised by the Opposition Wednesday — establishing one or more safe consumption sites, to try to reduce the risk of overdoses among drug users.
In her 2021 budget address, the province's finance minister said $250,000 had been committed to establish a site. The new budget tabled last week made no mention of safe consumption sites.
Hudson said a harm reduction co-ordinator has been hired and a steering committee will soon be in place, but said the project falls under the scope of the Chief Public Health Office and it's up to the CPHO to decide how quickly it wants to move forward. He said he would not provide the CPHO with a timetable.
Opposition MLA Karla Bernard criticized government for failing to push the project forward.
"Given the horrific stories we continue to hear about mental health and addiction struggles in our communities and the pressing need for supervised consumption sites, I can't understand why this government is still stalling," she said.
"Islanders are suffering because of this inaction."