July 25, 2016 1:06 pm
Updated: July 25, 2016 6:33 pm

Ontario to stop paying for high-dose opioids in push to reduce addiction

WATCH: Mon, Jul 25: High doses of long-acting opioids will no longer be paid for by the province in an effort to reduce the abuse and addiction to the painkillers. Mark McAllister reports.

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TORONTO – Ontario will be the first province to stop paying for high doses of long-acting opioids as part of a push to reduce the “growing problem” of addiction to the painkillers in the province.

The Ministry of Health said that in January 2017, high doses of the painkillers will be removed from the Ontario Drug Benefit Formulary, which covers the cost of drugs for people who are 65 or older, live in a long-term care home, receive social assistance or have high drug costs relative to their income.

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It’s a decision that Dr. David Juurlink, head of the division of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, said is a “good move” on the government’s part because it may discourage doctors from prescribing unnecessarily high doses of the drugs.

“We’re starting to see doctors prescribe them somewhat less regularly, but they are still used very, very often. And, I think, too often,” he said.

READ MORE: Opioids kill hundreds of Canadians a year. Why are doctors still prescribing so many?

The affected drugs include 200-milligram tablets of morphine, 24-milligram and 30-milligram capsules of hydromorphone and 75-microgram per hour and 100-microgram per hour patches of fentanyl. But the change doesn’t affect lower doses of the drugs, which the ministry said can actually be more effective than high doses.

Ontario’s Health Minister said in a written statement that delisting the drugs is an “important first step” in limiting high doses of opioids, which he noted are linked to overdose deaths.

A recent study showed that Ontario provincial inmates are 12 times more likely than the general public to die of a drug overdose within the first year following their release from incarceration, and 77 per cent of those deaths involved opioids.

Dr. Tara Gomes, who works at St. Michael’s Hospital and is a principal researcher for the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network, said that these high doses of opioids can get people addicted – and even cause an overdose – with just one use.

Gomes was the lead author of a 2014 study that found Ontario dispensed the most high-dose oxycodone and fentanyl in the country per capita between 2006 and 2011. The study showed that across the country, the rate of dispensing high-dose opioids rose 23 per cent over the same period.

READ MORE: Number of B.C. fentanyl-related deaths spikes in first half of 2016

Juurlink, who was also an author on the study, said opioid addiction reaches beyond just Ontario and Canada. He said the over-prescription of high doses of the drugs is “a North American issue.”

Prescribing high doses of the drugs is particularly problematic because drug addicts and people looking to “make a buck” by selling their prescriptions are more likely to look for higher concentrations, he said.

But he noted that there are some legitimate uses for high doses, like in end-of-life care.

“I’ve heard grumblings (about the announcement), mostly from the palliative care communities,” he said. But he noted that doctors who need to prescribe a higher dose can instruct their patients to scale up the number of pills they take.

READ MORE: Health Canada approves Naloxone nasal spray to combat ‘opioid crisis’

He said the same could be done for patients who don’t necessarily need high doses, but that this move may encourage doctors think critically about why they prescribe such high dosages.

And Gomes noted that the high dosages will still be available in the province – they just won’t be refunded to patients under the Ontario Drug Benefit Formulary, so patients will have to pay out of pocket or use insurance to buy them.

© 2016 The Canadian Press

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