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.
In this submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, the CMA’s feedback is focused on three of the legislative objectives of Bill C-14, given their relevance to the CMA’s Principles-based Recommendations for a Canadian Approach to Assisted Dying.
On behalf of its more than 83,000 members and the Canadian public, the CMA performs a wide variety of functions. Key functions include advocating for health promotion and disease/injury prevention policies and strategies, advocating for access to quality health care, facilitating change within the medical profession, and providing leadership and guidance to physicians to help them influence, manage and adapt to changes in health care delivery.
i) Robust Safeguards
First, the CMA supports the legislative objective of ensuring a system of robust safeguards to the provision of medical assistance in dying. The safeguards proposed by Bill C-14 include: patient eligibility criteria, process requirements to request medical assistance in dying, as well as monitoring and reporting requirements.
The CMA is a voluntary professional organization representing the majority of Canada’s physicians and comprising 12 provincial and territorial divisions and over 60 national medical organizations.
ii) Consistent, Pan-Canadian Framework
Second, the CMA supports the legislative objective that a consistent framework for medical assistance in dying in Canada is desirable. In addition to robust safeguards, key measures proposed by Bill C-14 support the promulgation of a consistent framework across jurisdictions include legislating definitions for “medical assistance in dying” and “grievous and irremediable condition.”
The CMA’s Principles-based Recommendations reflect on the subjective nature of what constitutes “enduring and intolerable suffering” and a “grievous and irremediable condition” as well as the physician’s role in making an eligibility determination.
iii) End-of-Life Care Coordination System
Thirdly, the CMA supports the objective to develop additional measures to support the provision of a full range of options for end-of-life care and to respect the personal convictions of health care providers. The fulfilment of these commitments with federal non-legislative measures will be integral to supporting the achievement of access to care, respecting the personal convictions of health care providers, and developing a consistent, pan-Canadian framework.
The CMA encourages the federal government to rapidly advance its commitment to engage the provinces and territories in developing a pan-Canadian end-of-life care coordinating system. It will be essential for this system to be in place for June 6, 2016. At least one jurisdiction has made a system available to support connecting patients with willing providers. Until a pan-Canadian system is available, there will be a disparity of support for patients and practitioners across jurisdictions.
iv) Respect Personal Convictions
Finally, it is the CMA’s position that Bill C-14, to the extent constitutionally possible, must respect the personal convictions of health care providers. In the Carter decision, the Supreme Court of Canada emphasized that any regulatory or legislative response must seek to reconcile the Charter rights of patients wanting to access assisted dying and physicians who choose not to participate in medical assistance in dying on grounds of conscientious objection.
The CMA’s Principles-based Recommendations achieves an appropriate balance between physicians’ freedom of conscience and the assurance of effective and timely patient access to a medical service. From the CMA’s significant consultation with our membership, it is clear that physicians who are comfortable providing referrals strongly believe it is necessary to ensure the system protects the conscience rights of physicians who are not.
While the federal government has achieved this balance with Bill C-14, there is the potential for other regulatory bodies to implement approaches that may result in a patchwork system. The CMA’s position is that the federal government effectively mitigate this outcome by rapidly advancing the establishment of the pan-Canadian end-of-life care coordinating system.
CMA Supports Cautious Approach for “Carter Plus”
The CMA must emphasize the need for caution and careful study in consideration of “Carter Plus”, which includes: eligibility of mature minors, eligibility with respect to sole mental health conditions, and advance care directives. The CMA supports the federal government’s approach not to legislate these issues, rather to study them in greater detail.
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