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Fresh Start Recovery Centre in Calgary, on Feb. 14, 2020. The facility is receiving $1.56-million a year for three years as the province boosts support for addiction-treatment beds.Candice Ward/The Globe and Mail

Teressa Krueckl runs Thorpe Recovery Centre in northern Alberta, just a smidge west of the Saskatchewan border. The facility has 72 beds to treat people with addictions, with a wait-list that can stretch six months.

Despite demand and Alberta’s growing addictions crisis, about 50 of Thorpe’s 72 beds have been sitting empty, said Ms. Krueckl, the non-profit’s chief executive officer. Chunks of the accredited facility are essentially shuttered; Thorpe turned down the heat and shut off the lights in dead zones.

“We do have a whole wing that we don’t utilize,” Ms. Krueckl said. “The beds are there, ready to be made."

The institution, which is about 240 kilometres east of Edmonton near a rural community called Blackfoot, does not have the money to operate at capacity, she said. Alberta, until last month, funded just eight residential beds at Thorpe. Those publicly funded beds, where patients spend 42 days, were always full.

But now, facilities like Thorpe are a key part of Alberta’s strategy to shrink wait-lists for publicly funded addictions treatment, as the United Conservative Party government shifts its focus toward recovery, rather than harm reduction programs such as supervised consumption sites.

Premier Jason Kenney has pledged to cover costs for 4,000 treatment spaces for Albertans over the next four years. Spaces tally how many people cycle through the beds a year, which means the actual number of funded beds will be far lower. One bed in a six-month residential program, for example, equates to two spaces. A bed in a short-term program, including detox, translates into many more.

Alberta’s $140-million plan is starting with places such as Thorpe – facilities that already have contracts with the government and are home to empty and unfunded beds. The government said this month it would give Thorpe up to $2.21-million a year for three years.

Ms. Krueckl said the cash means Thorpe will be able to increase its publicly funded beds to 38, up from eight. Thorpe, she said, has already increased the amount of room in its detox program, and more beds across its programs will be open April 1.

There are 1,396 treatment beds in Alberta, according to Marshall Smith, the chief of staff for the Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. Of those, Alberta Health Services directly funds 228 beds. Another 500 beds are funded under AHS contracts, 309 are supported through other government programs, 114 are on reserves and an additional 245 are not financed by the government. The government does not know how many treatment spaces all of those beds amount to.

In the unfunded beds, the costs are covered by patients, insurance companies or non-profit organizations. The government, however, says it believes there are another 250 existing but empty beds in the non-profit system – beds such as the approximate 50 vacancies at Thorpe.

The funding for recovery beds is happening as the government considers the future of the province’s supervised drug consumption sites, of which the UCP have long been skeptical. The government launched a review to study the impact on neighbours and businesses, with an eye to move or close some of the facilities, which Mr. Kenney has derided as “NDP drug sites.”

The government said its funding earmarked for beds is unrelated to cash supporting harm reduction programs.

Jason Luan, the Associate Minister for Mental Health and Addictions, said the previous government created a “mess” by choosing to focus on harm reduction rather than funding recovery beds.

“That is absolutely disgusting,” he said. “How can you justify having people struggle, and no where to go, and in the meantime, there are those places left empty?”

“We are building a recovery-oriented system of care," he said. The system, he said, will still include harm reduction programs.

Alberta’s strategy will come in waves. It intends to fund empty beds in existing facilities that already have government contracts. It will also fund existing beds in facilities that are neither funded by the government nor vacant. This, essentially, means it is shuffling beds, rather than creating new ones. Under this part of the plan, beds that were previously available only to those who could pay or cover costs by other means will now be available under Alberta’s health-care system.

It levels the playing field, Mr. Luan said.

“Albertans now, when they need the treatment, the detox, they don’t have to consider whether to sell [their] car, sell their [house], to do this.”

The government is not examining success rates in this phase because the institutions are already accredited and have relationships with the province. This approach means the province is funding programs ranging from faith-based facilities to medically assisted recovery. Experts argue such a mix is appropriate, especially because people with addictions typically relapse and need to go through a number of programs before they are able to stay clean.

The government intends to ask agencies to make their pitches for money for the next funding phase. It will examine whether areas of the province lack access and this portion of the plan could result in new facilities or expansions.

The goal, Mr. Luan said, is to increase the number of publicly funded spaces as cheaply and quickly as possible.

Fresh Start Recovery Centre in Calgary is another recent recipient of government funding, receiving $1.56-million a year for three years. The centre’s residential program has 50 beds, which are always full, and the wait-list late last month was 143 days. But the province covered the costs for just one of those beds. The remaining beds were used by a mix of patients with insurance or paying out of pocket, or people from other provinces receiving care funded by their own governments.

The new funding means Fresh Start, which is based on the 12-step program for addiction recovery and also has post-treatment spaces, now has 30 publicly funded beds.

Executive director Stacey Petersen said the funding will not increase the number of beds or spaces available at Fresh Start, but rather it will mean more Albertans will be able to fill the spots.

“It will change the composition of the wait-list,” said Mr. Petersen, who also sits on the province’s mental health and addiction advisory committee.

Fresh Start’s annual budget is $3.7-million, Mr. Petersen said.

Heather Sweet, the New Democratic Party’s mental health and addictions critic, argues the NDP emphasized harm reduction programs such as supervised consumption sites because Alberta was swept up in an opioid overdose crisis when they were in power.

“Our response ... was to address the crisis – to make sure that people were able to live to the next day, until they were ready to access treatment," she said.

She added the NDP focused on urban centres rather than rural areas in an attempt to address demand.

Ms. Krueckl, Thorpe’s CEO, argued that facilities such as hers in Blackfoot, which has a population of 392, served the entire province.

“We just didn’t have a government that was really willing to look outside of some of the larger cities,” she said.

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Editor’s note: A previous version incorrectly said Stacey Peterson sat on a government committee studying supervised-consumption sites. In fact, he is a member of the government's mental health and addiction advisory committee.

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