Dear Minister Elliott:
We write to you as organizations concerned about the health and welfare of some of the most vulnerable Ontarians, in response to the October 22 announcement that your government plans to replace supervised consumption sites (SCS) and low-barrier overdose prevention sites (OPS) with “Consumption and Treatment Services.”1
While we welcome the stated commitment to maintain existing SCS and OPS in Ontario, we are deeply concerned that your government’s new approach to supervised consumption services is creating more barriers instead of facilitating the rapid-scale up of a diversity of much-needed supervised consumption services across the province. This is especially troubling in the context of the public health crisis in which we now find ourselves.
In particular, we are concerned by the decision to impose one “Consumption and Treatment Services” model on service providers and essentially terminate low-threshold, flexible OPS. These life-saving services are part of a continuum of service models that should be made available to all people who use drugs who need them, including the most marginalized. Thousands of overdoses have been reversed using this model, and no deaths recorded at these sites.
As you know, OPS were created in response to the urgent need for rapid roll-out of these vital services. A specific legal regime under a federal class exemption issued to Ontario was put in place to allow for their rapid implementation in response to the current crisis. The requirement for both OPS and SCS, including already authorized ones, to undergo a new application process for funding is sapping concerted efforts from the federal and provincial governments to respond to the overdose crisis. Not only does the new application process replicate the onerous federal exemption process for SCS (such as requiring applicants to engage in ongoing community consultations), it will also impose additional requirements including requiring applicants to provide treatment and rehabilitation services and to conduct seemingly more extensive data reporting, monitoring and evaluations — all without dedicating additional funding to allow organizations to adequately comply. Moreover, the requirement for service providers to provide treatment and rehabilitation services is not in line with harm reduction values of meeting people where they are.
At the same time, the arbitrary decision to cap the number of sites at 21 without any justification means people who do not reside near existing or impending sites will be denied access to life-saving care, at a time when overdose deaths in Ontario are at an all-time high, with more than three people dying every day in 2017.2 Denying funding to new sites will undoubtedly mean more preventable overdose deaths and new HIV, hepatitis C and other infections.
We agree that there are inadequate drug treatment, mental health services and supportive housing options available for people who use drugs, and providing greater support for these services is laudable. But this should not come at the expense of life-saving supervised consumption services, including low-threshold services that are varied, responsive and meet the needs of their communities. We urge you to reconsider the decision to create new hurdles for service providers to receive funding to provide supervised consumption services and to limit the number of sites to 21. We call on you to work with people who use drugs, community organizations and other health service providers to ensure greater, equitable access to SCS and OPS for the people of Ontario. Lives are at stake.
Richard Elliott, Executive Director, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
Ryan Peck, Executive Director, HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario
Dr. F. Gigi Osler, President, Canadian Medical Association
Michael Villeneuve, Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Nurses Association
Ian Culbert, Executive Director, Canadian Public Health Association
Sarah Ovens, Coordinator, Toronto Overdose Prevention Society
Cc. The Honourable Doug Ford, Premier of Ontario
1 Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care News Release: Ontario Government Connecting People with Addictions to Treatment and Rehabilitation, October 22, 2018, online: https://news.ontario.ca/mohltc/en/2018/10/ontario-government-connecting-people-with-addictions-to-treatment-and-rehabilitation.html.
2 Public Health Ontario, “Opioid-related morbidity and mortality in Ontario” (May 23, 2018), online: https://www.publichealthontario.ca/en/dataandanalytics/pages/opioid.aspx#/trends.
Thank you Mr. Chair.
I am Dr. Jeff Blackmer, the Vice-President of Medical Professionalism for the Canadian Medical Association.
On behalf of the CMA, let me first commend the committee for initiating an emergency study on this public health crisis in Canada.
As the national organization representing over 83,000 Canadian physicians, the CMA has an instrumental role in collaborating with other health stakeholders, governments and patient organizations in addressing the opioid crisis in Canada.
On behalf of Canada’s doctors, the CMA is deeply concerned with the escalating public health crisis related to problematic opioid and fentanyl use.
Physicians are on the front lines in many respects.
Doctors are responsible for supporting patients with the management of acute and chronic pain. Policy makers must recognize that prescription opioids are an essential tool in the alleviation of pain and suffering, particularly in palliative and cancer care.
The CMA has long been concerned with the harms associated with opioid use. In fact, we appeared before this committee as part of its 2013 study on the government’s role in addressing prescription drug abuse.
At that time, we made a number of recommendations on the government’s role – some of which I will reiterate today.
Since then, the CMA has taken numerous actions to contribute to Canada’s response to the opioid crisis.
These actions have included advancing the physician perspective in all active government consultations.
In addition to the 2013 study by the health committee, we have also participated in the 2014 ministerial roundtable and recent regulatory consultations led by Health Canada — specifically, on tamper resistant technology for drugs and delisting of naloxone for the prevention of overdose deaths in the community.
Our other actions have included:
· Undertaking physician polling to better understand physician experiences with prescribing opioids;
· Developing and disseminating new policy on addressing the harms associated with opioids;
· Supporting the development of continuing medical education resources and tools for physicians;
· Supporting the national prescription drug drop off days; and,
· Hosting a physician education session as part of our annual meeting in 2015.
Further, I’m pleased to report that the CMA has recently joined the Executive Council of the First Do No Harm strategy, coordinated by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.
In addition, we have joined 7 leading stakeholders as part of a consortium formed this year to collaborate on addressing the issue from a medical standpoint.
I will now turn to the CMA’s recommendations for the committee’s consideration. These are grouped in four major theme areas.
1) Harm Reduction
The first of them is harm reduction.
Addiction should be recognized and treated as a serious, chronic and relapsing medical condition for which there are effective treatments.
Despite the fact that there is broad recognition that we are in a public health crisis, the focus of the federal National Anti-Drug Strategy is heavily skewed towards a criminal justice approach rather than a public health approach.
In its current form, this strategy does not significantly address the determinants of drug use, treat addictions, or reduce the harms associated with drug use.
The CMA strongly recommends that the federal government review the National Anti-Drug Strategy to reinstate harm reduction as a core pillar.
Supervised consumption sites are an important part of a harm reduction program that must be considered in an overall strategy to address harms from opioids. The availability of supervised consumption sites is still highly limited in Canada.
The CMA maintains its concerns that the new criteria established by the Respect for Communities Act are overly burdensome and deter the establishment of new sites.
As such, the CMA continues to recommend that the act be repealed or at the least, significantly amended.
2) Expanding Pain Management and Addiction Treatment
The second theme area I will raise is the need to expand treatment options and services.
Treatment options and services for both addiction as well as pain management are woefully under-resourced in Canada.
This includes substitution treatments such as buprenorphine-naloxone as well as services that help patients taper off opioids or counsel them with cognitive behavioural therapy.
Availability and access of these critical resources varies by jurisdiction and region. The federal government should prioritize the expansion of these services.
The CMA recommends that the federal government deliver additional funding on an emergency basis to significantly expand the availability and access to addiction treatment and pain management services.
3) Investing in Prescriber and Patient Education
The third theme I will raise for the committee’s consideration is the need for greater investment in both prescriber as well as patient education resources.
For prescribers, this includes continuing education modules as well as training curricula. We need to ensure the availability of unbiased and evidenced-based educational programs in opioid prescribing, pain management and in the management of addictions.
Further, support for the development of educational tools and resources based on the new clinical guidelines to be released in early 2017 will have an important role.
Finally, patient and public education on the harms associated with opioid usage is critical.
As such, the CMA recommends that the federal government deliver new funding to support the availability and provision of education and training resources for prescribers, patients and the public.
4) Establishing a Real-time Prescription Monitoring Program
Finally, to support optimal prescribing, it is critical that prescribers be provided with access to a real-time prescription monitoring program.
Such a program would allow physicians to review a patient’s prescription history from multiple health services prior to prescribing. Real-time prescription monitoring is currently only available in two jurisdictions in Canada.
Before closing, I must emphasize that the negative impacts associated with prescription opioids represent a complex issue that will require a multi-faceted, multi-stakeholder response.
A key challenge for public policy makers and prescribers is to mitigate the harms associated with prescription opioid use, without negatively affecting patient access to the appropriate treatment for their clinical conditions.
To quote a past CMA president: “the unfortunate reality is that there is no silver bullet solution and no one group or government can address this issue alone”.
The CMA is committed to being part of the solution.