Dr. Swann in Question Period on Opioid Use Prevention and Mitigation – 10 April 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Monday, April 10, 2017

Opioid Use Prevention and Mitigation

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. On Friday Alberta Health posted the first near quarter interim report on opioids, further detailing the devastating impact this epidemic is having. An issue as serious as this should have been accompanied by a greater public response. Instead, this government was busy making funding announcements. In the first six weeks of 2017 51 Albertans died from fentanyl-related overdoses, nearly twice as many as last year, yet this government still refuses to call this an emergency. To the associate minister: what will it take for you to call this an emergency?

The Speaker: The Associate Minister of Health.

Ms Payne: Thank you, Mr. Speaker and to the member for the question. The interim numbers that were released last week by the chief medical officer of health confirmed what we’ve heard clearly from front-line health care workers and community agencies, that synthetic opioids remain a deadly threat to Albertans living with substance use, their families, and first responders. That’s why we’re multiplying our efforts and will spend up to $56 million over the next year to help Albertans get the treatment that they need to reduce the harm of substance use and to raise public awareness.

Dr. Swann: This minister has repeatedly told us that the government has already got enough resources to deal with the crisis. However, Albertans with mental health and addiction illnesses are not getting the supports they need to recover. Access to treatment clinics outside of our two largest cities is a major issue. I don’t know of any clinics that are open evenings and weekends. We continue to see a piecemeal approach instead of a coherent strategy, one that involves government and nongovernment organizations, police, human services, and indigenous groups. To the minister: when will we see a comprehensive provincial opioid strategy aimed at getting ahead of this crisis?

The Speaker: The hon. associate minister.

Ms Payne: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Our response to the opioid crisis is being led by the chief medical officer of health, something that the member opposite has supported. We’re going to make sure that we have all of the tools available, but we believe fundamentally that this is a public health issue. What we will not do is subscribe to the discredited war-on-drugs approach that the Official Opposition supports. Certainly, access to opioid replacement therapy is a critical part of our government’s response, and part of the money allocated in Budget 2017 is to expand the overall capacity and geographic reach of our clinical systems.

Dr. Swann: Mr. Speaker, it’s clearly beyond the current chief medical officer.

Following the flood that ravaged southern Alberta in 2013, the previous government established the office of the chief addictions and mental health officer to provide psychological and social help to the flood victims. Later he began to focus on harm reduction issues, including fentanyl and opioids. Instead of supporting this expanded scope for the chief addictions and mental health officer, the minister eliminated the position. My question is now to the Health minister. In hindsight, this may have been a mistake. When will we see the reappointment of the chief addictions and mental health officer to lead this government’s response?

The Speaker: The associate minister.

Ms Payne: Thank you, Mr. Speaker and to the member for the question. As I noted earlier, our response to the crisis is being led by the chief medical officer of health, who’s working very closely with experts in the field to ensure that our plan is heading in the right direction. What we are doing is that we have expanded the reach and scope of our naloxone kit program, which has expanded to more than a thousand registered sites across our province, without a prescription and at no cost to Albertans. We are expanding access to opioid dependency treatments across our province, making use of telehealth and other services to ensure . . .

The Speaker: Thank you, Associate Minister.