Alberta’s United Conservative Party Leader says he would put a pause on opening new supervised drug-use sites if elected and would review whether existing facilities should remain open.
Jason Kenney says his party would shift the provincial health agency’s focus toward drug treatment programs and would provide millions more for police as Alberta grapples with an opioid crisis that killed a record 746 people in 2018. He made the announcement on Thursday in Calgary, which has been the epicentre of the opioid crisis in the province and has faced an accompanying surge in methamphetamine use.
Extensive consultations will be held in communities with existing or proposed supervised drug-use sites, which could be moved, according to Mr. Kenney. He warned that concerns about discarded needles and increased crime around Calgary’s supervised drug-use site need to be balanced with the work of the five facilities operating in the province.
“Albertans want those living with addiction to be treated with compassion. Simply put, Albertans want those with addictions to be helped, but they also want their parks, neighbourhoods and communities to be safe,” Mr. Kenney said as he unveiled his party’s wider health policy.
Mr. Kenney promised to find $200-million in administrative savings in Alberta’s health-care system and criticized the New Democrats for increasing health-care spending by $3-billion over four years.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley has campaigned on increasing health-care funding, which represents nearly half of Alberta’s government spending, to keep it in line with the province’s growing population. Albertans go to the polls on April 16.
During an event in Calgary on Thursday, Ms. Notley would not say whether her party would open new supervised drug-use sites, but she said the NDP would not reduce existing supports for drug treatment.
“When it comes to the opioid crisis, let me tell you what won’t fix it: freezing health-care funding; cutting back on mental-health supports and addictions health care. Those are the things that will make the opioid crisis worse,” she said.
As part of their planned health reforms, the UCP promised to spend $100-million more over four years on a mental health and addictions policy that would open new opioid treatment centres, establish special courts that focus on drug cases outside Calgary and Edmonton, and set up a new provincial law-enforcement team focused on opioids.
Mr. Kenney, who has rejected the claim that a UCP government would impose health-care cuts, said there has been too much emphasis placed on supervised drug-use sites in Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge where people use powerful opioids, including potentially deadly illicit forms of fentanyl.
"A United Conservative government would only endorse new supervised-consumption sites if there had been extensive consultations with affected communities, including residents and business owners, and if there is a robust, evidence-based analysis of the socio-economic impact of a potential drug-consumption site,” he added.
Calgary police warned in late January that the crime rate around the city’s sole supervised drug-use site increased rapidly after the facility opened, with calls for service up by 29 per cent. That compares with a 4-per-cent rise in calls from across Calgary over the same period.
Data from the Edmonton police and obtained by The Globe and Mail found that violent crime increased by 22 per cent around two supervised drug-use sites in the city in the four months after they opened. However, overall calls for service were down and the police force found there was insufficient evidence to determine whether the facilities were responsible for any increase or decrease in calls for service.
Mr. Kenney also announced as part of his party’s health-care strategy that more day procedures would be farmed out to private clinics to decrease wait times and save money. He said the policy would be based on an initiative in neighbouring Saskatchewan.
Ms. Notley decried her opponent’s proposal as “American-style health care” and warned of queue jumping.
Friends of Medicare, a pro-public health-care advocacy group, warned that Mr. Kenney was turning his back on Alberta’s public system. It warned that Saskatchewan had to spend $176-million to create the private surgical clinics, which accounted for a further $60.5-million in annual costs in 2015.