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B.C. methadone program saves lives and money, report says

Laura Shaver, president of the B.C. Association of People on Methadone and a methadone user herself, is photographed in 2013 outside a pharmacy on East Hastings Street in Vancouver that supplies patients with methadone.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The provincial methadone program for treating addictions to heroin, morphine and oxycodone saves both lives and money, says a new report from British Columbia's medical health officer.

Dr. Perry Kendall's report, released Thursday, states the mortality rate for people in opioid substitution treatment is about half of what it is for those using street heroin.

The rate of death for those using methadone or Suboxone has fallen to 1.1 per 100 person years compared with 2.09 per 100 person years for those getting their opioids from the street, the report said.

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"Greater access to opioid substitution treatment, along with other harm reduction initiatives, has helped contribute to the lower incidence of HIV infection among people who inject drugs," Kendall's report concluded.

The report also said the annual per-patient costs for treatment programs in B.C. is about $4,200 compared with as much as $45,000 in Ontario and the United States for those with untreated opioid addictions.

The B.C. costs include physician, pharmacy and drug costs, while the costs from Ontario and the United States include estimated health care, law enforcement and other social costs.

"I am encouraged by the findings in this report that indicate that B.C.'s opioid substitution treatment system is saving patients' lives and saving the health-care system and society money," said Health Minister Terry Lake in a news release.

The provincial treatment program now extends beyond Vancouver with 3,000 pharmacists participating and almost 350 physicians prescribing methadone or Suboxone in the reporting year.

The report says 15,754 B.C. residents were involved in the opioid substitution treatment program between 2012 and 2013, a 66 per cent increase from 2007 and 2008.

The Fraser Health Authority was treating the most patients at more than 6,700.

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The B.C. substitution treatment system is supported by the Ministry of Health, Pharmacare, the college of Physicians and surgeons of B.C. and the College of Pharmacists of B.C.

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