Ontario is set to join British Columbia in a class-action lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and wholesalers, as part of a new mental health and addictions bill to be introduced on Monday by the Progressive Conservative government.
In an exclusive interview with The Globe last week, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the legislation sets the stage for Ontario to join B.C.’s national class-action lawsuit launched last year against more than 40 opioid manufacturers and wholesalers, including Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin.
B.C.'s lawsuit, launched last August, alleges 20 years of misinformation and deception by pharmaceutical firms and distributors that knew or should have known the drugs were addictive and seeping into the illicit market. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Purdue Pharma has said it has always marketed its products in compliance with Canada’s rules.
The Ontario bill, crafted in conjunction with Attorney-General Caroline Mulroney, will create a series of rules to assist the litigation process, opening the door for Ontario to sue opioid manufacturers and wholesalers for alleged wrongdoing to recover health-care costs due to opioid-related disease, injury or illness.
“We will be pursuing damages … because of the incredible cost to the people of Ontario in dealing with the opioid crisis,” Ms. Elliott told The Globe. “It has cost a huge amount of money, not to mention people’s lives.”
In the first nine months of 2018 alone, 3,286 people died of opioid-related overdoses across the country.
The PC government said it would spend any award from litigation directly on front-line mental-health and addiction services.
The government’s bill, called the Foundations for Promoting and Protecting Mental Health and Addictions Services Act, was set to be introduced by Ms. Elliott on Monday. But on Sunday, her office said she tripped and fell while grocery shopping on the weekend and received stitches for a minor head wound. She is expected to spend a few days recovering at home. Instead, her parliamentary assistant, Toronto MPP Robin Martin, along with Ms. Mulroney, announced the bill on Monday.
Speaking at a mental health and addictions conference in Toronto on Monday, Ms. Mulroney said Ontario has seen a major increase in opioid-related deaths, hospitalizations and emergency department visits over the last decade.
“In simple terms, it’s a crisis,” Ms. Mulroney said.
The bill will allow the government “to take further action to battle the ongoing opioid crisis and hold manufacturers and wholesalers accountable for their roles in this crisis,” she said.
She later told reporters that the damages sought by the province will develop over the course of the litigation, but added that the costs to the health care system are “very high.”
The bill will also create a new Mental Health and Addictions Centre of Excellence within the Ministry of Health, which looks to establish best practices and standardize services across the province, Ms. Elliott said.
This was first recommended by an all-party committee, which Ms. Elliott co-chaired as an MPP in 2010.
Ms. Elliott, who said one of her family members has had a years-long struggle with mental-health problems, said she was inspired to seek public office in order to tackle the complex issue of mental health and addictions. She said the goal of the new centre is to integrate mental health and addictions services across the province and create the infrastructure needed to implement her government’s upcoming mental-health strategy.
“The problem, really, is that we don’t have a mental-health and addictions system in Ontario,” Ms. Elliott said.
“Despite investments having been made in several different areas, it’s still very piecemeal, very difficult for people to navigate, and really not having the right level of services in many different areas.”
The new centre would work with existing service providers such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), the minister said.
Ms. Elliott’s comments come as her government is embroiled in a battle with Toronto Mayor John Tory over a series of provincial cuts to to budgets for municipalities’ public-health, child-care and other services; other mayors across Ontario are also speaking out about the cuts.
Mr. Tory has said this year alone, the funding reductions will cost his city almost $180-million in cuts to budgets that have already passed, possibly forcing the city to pare back key programs or even issue an extra tax bill.
Ms. Elliott said she hadn’t expected the situation to escalate the way it has and said she is willing to meet with Mr. Tory at any time. But she defended the decision, arguing that the province’s fiscal situation was unsustainable over the long term.
“The people of Ontario elected us to do some tough work and we’re doing it," Ms. Elliott said.
“Nobody wants to have to make these choices, but we have that responsibility.”
The Ontario government’s decision to sue opioid makers comes after the province stopped funding several supervised drug-use sites, leaving city officials and site operators scrambling to find new funding sources, including from the federal government.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford has defended the move, suggesting some sites are closing because they are too close together. The province has said it would provide funding for 15 consumption and treatment services sites, which is the government’s new model for supervised drug-use sites.
Ms. Elliott said the government is still evaluating six other locations.
“The Premier has always been concerned about helping people and getting people into treatment," Ms. Elliott said.
“Of course, it’s very important to save lives, and that’s what the overdose prevention sites were doing, but that is only half of what needs to be done. We need to also help people get into the treatment and rehab services that they need.”
The B.C. lawsuit, the first of its kind by a government in Canada, not only targets the opioid manufacturers, but also takes aim at retail giants that sold the drugs, in an effort to recover public-health costs associated with an opioid epidemic that has killed thousands of Canadians.
The list of more than 40 defendants includes manufacturers such as Purdue Pharma, whose OxyContin pain pill has been implicated in Canada’s overdose epidemic, as well as retailers, distributors and wholesalers.
The lawsuit accuses brand-name and generic manufacturers of deceptively marketing opioids as both being less addictive than actually known and for conditions they were not effective in treating.
Purdue has acknowledged in the United States that its marketing of OxyContin was misleading. Purdue’s Canadian operation has not made a similar admission of wrongdoing.
A Toronto law firm, Koskie Minsky, has also proposed a $1.1-billion class-action lawsuit targeting opioid drug makers in Ontario. The lead plaintiff is a former emergency room doctor in Barrie, Ont., who spent several weeks in a drug rehabilitation centre after becoming addicted to the painkiller Percocet. A Quebec firm launched a similar lawsuit last week against 27 pharmaceutical companies in the province.