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In B.C., proposed Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions draws pleas for caution

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall said British Columbia has reached a point where it has a “good focus on substance use,” and that he is concerned the new ministry could become the “poor cousin” of the main Ministry of Health in the province.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

A Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, separate from the Ministry of Health, could face funding, staffing and information-sharing challenges – and create a distraction in the province's growing response to the overdose crisis.

That's the concern of Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall, who was asked about the planned ministry on Friday at the 2017 Overdose Action Exchange in Vancouver, hosted by the BC Centre for Disease Control.

Both the BC NDP and the BC Greens, whose partnership could see an NDP minority government assume power, have pledged to create such a ministry.

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"If I was asked for my opinion – and I've consulted widely on this – I would be really concerned that it would be a distraction trying to separate out the two ministries, with responsibilities, with funding, with information sharing agreements," Dr. Kendall said. "There aren't that many people to form two separate ministries. I would really urge caution and thought about it."

NDP Leader John Horgan and Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver have both noted that the files are currently divided among many ministries – health, children, education – and become "lost" as a result.

"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 affected families at a news conference earlier this week.

In an interview, Dr. Kendall elaborated on the difficulty of splitting apart ministerial responsibilities and staffing.

"People who are working on the province's programs on mental health and substance use also have to reflect the fact that the services are actually embedded in the health authorities and they're often linked and mixed together," he said.

"So that funding would have to be stripped out, individuals would have to be stripped out. At the ministerial level, you would have to figure out which component of the Public Health Act went with each minister."

Mr. Kendall wondered about funding to the medical services plan and pharmaceutical plans, which are intertwined.

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"If you went as far as trying to pull out funding streams … it has the potential to be a big distraction at a time when you really just want to get on and do what needs to be done."

The provincial health officer said British Columbia has reached a point where it has a "good focus on substance use," and that he is concerned the new ministry could become the "poor cousin" of the main Ministry of Health in the province.

Selina Robinson, the NDP's spokeswoman on mental health and addictions, said her party will not be able to address Dr. Kendall's specific concerns until the NDP-Green form government. However, she maintains that the new ministry, with a dedicated minister at the cabinet table, will be the way to go.

"It's time to give mental health and addictions the attention they deserve, and having a minister whose eyes are on [the file] all the time is, I think, how we're going to move through this crisis to a different place," Ms. Robinson said Friday.

Friday's meeting brought together about 140 people, including about 20 with lived experiences, to develop innovative strategies to combat British Columbia's worsening overdose crisis. Initiatives discussed included the expansion of supervised injectable opioid assisted treatment, drug checking initiatives and growing and harvesting opium poppies as a safer alternative to street drugs.

In 2016, a record 935 people died of illicit drug overdoses in British Columbia. This year, with already 488 deaths in the first quarter, the province is on pace for more than 1,400.

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