A injection kit is seen inside the newly opened Fraser Health supervised consumption site is pictured in Surrey, B.C. on June 6, 2017. (Jonathan Hayward / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Alberta pilot program for tough-to-treat opioid users to end in a year

United Conservative government extended funding until March 31, 2021

An Alberta pilot program meant to help some of the toughest-to-treat opioid users will end in a year.

The Injectable Opioid Agonist Treatment grant, announced under the former NDP government, was supposed to end this month.

The United Conservative government extended funding until March 31, 2021, to allow patients to transition to other forms of treatment, said a spokeswoman for associate health minister Jason Luan.

“It was always intended as a pilot and the previous government had not identified a transition plan for these patients after the two-year mark,” Kassandra Kitz said in a statement Monday.

“Patients will be transitioned to the health services that are most appropriate for their needs, determined by medical professionals. There are over 20 specialty clinics/programs in Alberta that provide opioid replacement therapy, along with the range of other publicly funded addiction treatment supports offered across Alberta.”

The program is geared toward opioid users for whom no other treatments have worked. It involves injecting hydromorphone two to three times a day and visiting with doctors, nurses, social workers and peer supports.

“It’s for mainly the really hard-to-get patients and the really hard-to-treat patients,” said addictions specialist Monty Ghosh, who works in the program but was not speaking on behalf of it or Alberta Health Services.

ALSO READ: Almost 14,000 Canadians killed by opioids since 2016 — new national study

There are about 50 patients going through the program each in Calgary and Edmonton.

“These clients typically don’t see health-care professionals at all. They’re usually on the street,” said Ghosh.

“They only go to the emergency departments, for example, when they’re really, really sick. But this provides an opportunity to get to know them.”

Building those relationships requires a lot of staff and makes the program quite expensive to run at approximately $30,000 to $50,000 annually per patient, said Ghosh.

He said there are lower-cost alternatives, such as dispensing the hydromorphone at pharmacies or through supervised consumption services.

“Can it be achieved with other formats? Potentially, but maybe less likely,” said Ghosh. ”So my hope is that the government, understanding that they have fiscal responsibilities, can look at other options that are available, even though they may not be as robust as this, to help with these very vulnerable clients.”

ALSO READ: Report tells Health Canada to rethink funding in opioids fight

Ghosh said he’s seen his patients benefit in a number of ways, thanks to daily interaction with their care team. Some have fewer legal issues and improved overall health, some transition to stable housing and find employment.

“There’s a lot other benefits to this program than just the addiction piece,” he said. “Their whole quality of life improves.”

Petra Schulz, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, said she was dismayed to hear the program wouldn’t be continuing past next year, especially since the United Conservative government has emphasized the need for treatment and recovery over harm reduction.

“It’s heartbreaking. It’s illogical. It’s unethical,” said Schulz, whose 25-year-old son, Danny, died from an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2014.

Schulz said she understands the program is intensive and costly. But she said so are repeated emergency room visits, incarceration and treating illnesses like HIV and hepatitis C.

“We have to think about the long-term cost to society and also the human cost to families.”

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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