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British Columbia BC NDP plans to combat opioid crisis with dedicated minister role

“What I believe has been missing for the last year is somebody in government who is accountable every day for this crisis,” BC NDP Leader John Horgan told a news conference on Monday with families affected by the opioid crisis.

Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS

NDP Leader John Horgan says his party's plan to appoint a minister focused on dealing with the opioid crisis is the best shot at solving the health issue that has killed hundreds of British Columbians.

As the prospect of an NDP government looms, Mr. Horgan says the minister at the helm of a newly created addictions and mental-health ministry will bring a focus to the issue he claims has been absent from the approach of the current provincial Liberal government.

"What I believe has been missing for the last year is somebody in government who is accountable every day for this crisis," Mr. Horgan told a news conference on Monday with affected families.

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"Critically important is to have someone up … who says, 'What am I going to do today to make life better for British Columbians, who are struggling with addictions?' And that's just not happening."

Last week, Terry Lake, the former Liberal health minister who did not run in last month's election, was awarded the National Public Health Hero award by the Canadian Public Health Association for his work dealing with the opioid crisis.

When asked how the government has handled the file to date, the B.C. health ministry responded with a list of measures including expanded access to take-home naloxone kits for dealing with overdoses, opening 23 overdose-prevention sites since December, the creation of treatment guidelines for opioid-use disorder, and the creation of a mobile response team of 12 practitioners to provide support for front-line workers in high-overdose areas. That team has yet to be deployed as they are in training.

Although Mr. Horgan saluted the work of Mr. Lake, he said the overdose crisis requires someone with more focus than a cabinet minister running the broader health-care system.

"I am not disrespecting the former minister," Mr. Horgan said. "I just think a focused effort is what we need right now. We're failing right now. We need to look at this differently. What we are doing right now is not good enough."

The new minister is likely to face a daunting assignment.

On Monday, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott told a National Health Leadership Conference in Vancouver that British Columbia is "ground zero" in Canada for the overdose crisis, which took 935 lives in the province last year out of 2,458 in Canada.

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Ottawa, municipalities, police and public-health agencies have been grappling with the soaring number of overdose deaths in B.C. linked to illicit fentanyl and chemically similar drugs. B.C. is headed for 1,400 such deaths this year.

Big-city mayors across Canada have called for measures such as the approval of new supervised drug-consumption sites – the federal government has approved three sites in the Vancouver region – and the expansion of unconventional therapies such as as heroin-assisted treatment.

In a report last month, Vancouver police said "we cannot arrest our way out of the opioid crisis," and warned of a lack of "immediately accessible" treatment services.

The NDP election platform said the new ministry would prioritize patients and ensure treatment is available, co-ordinated and "effective for those who need it." There's also a commitment to early intervention and treatment of addiction issues and "improving access to harm-reduction options that save lives" as well as newly intensive residential-based treatment.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said the most critical first step the NDP could take would be to invest $10-million in federal funding to B.C. – money that was announced in February – to expand treatment options to immediately save lives.

"Four people a day are dying from overdoses in B.C. We desperately need a new government who will change course and take a bold approach to stopping B.C.'s horrific drug-overdose death toll," Mr. Robertson said in a statement.

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In the coming weeks, the NDP, supported by the Green Party, are expected to oust the Liberals in a confidence vote, setting the stage for the first NDP government in 16 years.

Mr. Horgan said he was not trying to expand the bureaucracy with his new ministry and minister, but said "we just have to have a level of accountability that's currently not there."

At this point, he said responsibility is being pushed around too much.

"The ministry pushes the ball to the health authorities. The health authorities say they're unable to act without approval from the minister. Going like this is helping no one. And it's doing a disservice to all those hard-working front-line workers, who would be right there to help people if they had the opportunity to do so, but they can't get the approvals they need."

With files from The Canadian Press

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