Health Minister Eric Hoskins announced Wednesday several steps as part of Ontario’s “comprehensive Opioid strategy” to prevent addiction and overdoses.
The new measures include expanded access to the addiction treatment drug Suboxone and an additional $17 million a year on 17 chronic pain clinics. And Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, will serve as the province’s first-ever overdose co-ordinator to better track patients who overdose on painkillers like fentanyl and hydromorphone.
“Despite our best efforts, we know there is a growing urgent issue here in Ontario and right across North America that we need to come to grips with,” Hoskins told reporters. “And that is the increasing number of people who are becoming addicted to prescription opioids.”
“Opioid use has become the third leading cause of accidental death in Ontario – that is more than car accidents,” Hoskins said.
The Ontario government has been criticized over its response to the opioid crisis in the province over concerns it didn’t have up-to-date information on how many people were overdosing.
As part of Williams’ new role, he will work with the coroner’s office, police, hospitals, and public health officials to monitor all opioid-related overdoses.
In 2014, more than 700 people died in Ontario from opioid-related overdoses, a 266 per cent increase since 2002, according to the ministry. The latest data from Ontario’s chief coroner for 2015 showed there were 529 opioid overdoses in Ontario — 162 of which involved fentanyl.
Michael Parkinson, a drug strategy specialist with the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council (WRCPC), called today’s announcement “long overdue.”
“It’s a positive, if not overdue start to what many hope will be more comprehensive set of actions that support local communities,” Parkinson said. “You can’t arrest your way out this, you can’t treat your way out of this, you really need a collaborative and comprehensive approach.”
Ontario is following in in the footsteps of the B.C. government in its decision to expand Suboxone under its Drug Benefit Formulary from “limited used” to “general benefit.” Provinces only pay for medications listed on their formularies.
Subxone — which helps stop opioid cravings and prevents withdrawal symptoms — comes with “significantly less” of a fatal overdose, according to the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care.
“Suboxone can safely be prescribed by family physicians without a special licence or training, and this will greatly expand access to treatment for patients who urgently need it,” addiction specialist Dr. Medlon Kahan told reporters. “It can be prescribed in a variety of settings, in remote, rural regions, in hospitals, in prisons, withdrawal management centres and in shelters and emergency departments.”
Other provinces that make Suboxone more widely available include Alberta, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
Hoskins also announced Ontario will make the antidote medication Naloxone available free of charge to treat overdoses.
Hoskins and federal Health Minister Jane Philpott will co-host a two-day summit in Ottawa on the “public health crisis” of opioid addiction in November.
*With files from the Canadian Press