The Ontario government has decided that they will continue with the system for overdose prevention set up in the province. Premier Doug Ford was vocal about his opposition to the safe-injection and overdose-prevention sites during the spring election, but after being presented with data from Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, he agreed that the services were important.
After a three-month review Elliott announced on Monday that it had been decided that they will be keeping the sites as “the evidence clearly demonstrated that these sites were necessary”. The existing sites, which were established by the previous, Liberal government, will now be able to operate under the new model planned, which will change the name of the sites to “Consumption and Treatment” services sites.
Data makes it clear that the sites are required; information from Public Health Ontario shows that 1,261 people died from opioid overdoses last year, up from the 867 deaths in 2016. Up to now there have been two types of harm-reduction sites within Ontario the approved sites, and the temporary sites. Those approved by Health Canada, called the supervised consumption sites, have gone through a lengthy application and vetting before gaining approval. The temporary sites, called overdose-prevention sites, were granted by Health Canada last year and were designed to be temporary centres to address the opioid crisis which continues to rage within Canada.
With the changes to the programme the existing sites will have to reapply under the new consumption-and-treatment-services model which has some different requirements, such as no pop-ups or tents allowed. As well all of the sites will be randomly inspected and subject to audits and follow-ups on complaints.
“We felt the previous government took some of the steps but really didn’t have that focus on rehabilitation and treatment that we think is necessary for people to be able to get the help that they need. It’s one thing to save lives through overdose prevention, that is very important, but it’s also really important to make sure that people can connect with the services they need.” Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott
The new system will be capping sites at 21, which is three more than are currently in operation in Ontario. This cap has caused some harm-reduction workers concern. Matt Turner, co-ordinator with Gilbert Centre in Barrie said he is still waiting to hear back from their application for overdose-prevention site made in March.
“Our community is one of the top three in the province for overdoses,” Turner said, and with another death last week added “We are quite concerned the crisis is escalating.”
Gillian Kolla of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society is also concerned with the cap of sites at 21.
“We’re in the middle of a very large public health crisis,” Kolla said. “I think the unfortunate thing about the announcement today is that it seems like it’s a moratorium. It’s basically the existing sites that are currently open in the province plus the three sites that had been approved prior to her pause. Unfortunately, there’s a much greater need within the province.”
Approved sites will begin to transition to the new programme in January 2019, with expectations that all locations will be up and running by April of 2019.