Province should reconsider funding cuts to existing overdose prevention sites, advocates say
Advocates are calling on the province to reverse their decision to withdraw funding from three supervised injection sites as the government transitions into a new model in their fight against the opioid crisis.
Under the Ontario government’s new plan, 15 approved overdose prevention sites have been approved to open, including six in Toronto and three in Ottawa. London, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, St. Catharines and Thunder Bay will get one each.
Six proposed sites were left off that list, including four that were already in operation.
The Works, run by Toronto Public Health on Victoria Street, St. Stephen’s Community House in Kensington Market, and Street Health Community Nursing on Dundas Street East, were not among those approved. However, The Works’ application is still under review.
“I’ve said many times that the opioid overdose crisis here in our city is the defining health crisis of our time,” Toronto medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa said on Monday.
“In 2017, there were 308 deaths due to opioid overdose here in our city and these are preventable deaths. In Canada right now, if you’re between the ages of 30 and 39, your number one cause of death is opioid overdose toxicity. I can’t put it more strongly, that this is a crisis.”
De Villa was among several local advocates and city councillors who gathered at city hall on Monday to urge the government to reconsider its decision and provide funding to the existing Toronto sites.
“I would have to say that I am disappointed and I would suggest that it goes beyond disappointment. It is around the fact that these are lifesaving services. There is clearly a need,” she said.
“With the numbers continuing as they are, now is not the time to reduce services but in fact maintain and enhance existing services and to expand them beyond what we’ve currently got.”
According to the latest data from Public Health Ontario, more than 600 Ontarians died from opioid overdoses in the first six months of 2018, up by 80 from the same period in 2017.
Existing overdose-prevention sites were allowed to apply to be included in the new model. Licenses were extended to March 31 while the government reviewed applications.
The sites will be established with $31 million in annual funding.
Bill Sinclair, the executive director of St. Stephen’s Community House, said not being approved for funding came as a shock to him and .
While he acknowledged that the six approved Toronto sites are a “victory” for the city, he said the locations don’t necessarily serve all the communities that need it most.
“We’ve been doing it on an emergency basis for the last year, working really closely with the province…We really thought that this was a partnership that was benefiting everyone and we still want to have this partnership,” he said.
“This is a local service. This is not something you cross town for. People should have local supports that are tied in with things that they need on a daily basis and that they connect with us on a daily basis. For that, you need more than six to cover the city and you also definitely need them in all the high risk neighbourhoods.”
The federal government stepped in after Friday’s announcement by the province and implemented a legal exemption allowing the Toronto sites to operate for another month.
Sinclair said the site was open as usual on Sunday and will remain open “even without funding,” but that the province’s collaboration is crucial to their existence long term.
“We pride ourselves on running a really quality service that’s very open and accessible to folks in the community,” he said. “You know 150 folks have come and trusted us with their health and their lives and their relationships, and they mean a lot to us.”
Premier Doug Ford said he’s "passionate" about helping those impacted by the health crisis, but said the concerns of residents living in areas near overdose prevention sites need to be considered too.
“We have to make sure that anytime we go into someone’s neighbourhood where want to put these safe injection sites – which already exist by the way – you always consult with the people,” he said.
“But I’m passionate about helping people that have an addiction. That’s a high priority. I don’t want any of these people dying.”
For his part, Toronto Mayor John Tory said the fact the city-run location was not approved was “extremely disturbing.”
“It came with no advanced warning or communication from the province,” he said in a statement following the province’s announcement on Friday.
“These sites all underwent extensive consultation and a lengthy approval process prior to their opening. Such short notice seems unnecessary and, at the very least, time extensions for the professional staff and clients should be considered.”
But Coun. Joe Cressey is holding out hope that the government can be convinced to expand their new model.
“I think what we’ve seen in the last nine months with this provincial government is that, when they get it wrong, like they did on autism funding or proposals to develop the Greenbelt, they have reversed course,” Cressy, the Chair of the Toronto Drug Strategy and Implementation Panel, told CP24.
“This is not a joke. These are real people. These are our brothers and sisters and our colleagues – overdose does not discriminate. So when it comes to life-saving health care, this government has to listen to the evidence, listen to the experts, and actually reverse the cuts to these life-saving programs.”
With files from the Canadian Press