TORONTO – A review of Ontario’s overdose-prevention sites has found that they help reduce drug-related deaths and lower the rate of public drug use, Health Minister Christine Elliott said Monday as she announced plans to enhance the program previously criticized by Premier Doug Ford.
Elliott said the Progressive Conservative government will spend just over $31 million a year to fund a maximum of 21 sites, which in addition to overdose prevention will offer drug users treatment and rehabilitation services.
“The evidence clearly demonstrated that these sites were necessary,” she told a news conference.
The existing overdose-prevention sites, originally launched by the previous Liberal government, can apply to continue to operate under the new model planned by the government, which will now be called “Consumption and Treatment” services sites, Elliott said.
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“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,” she said. “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.”
Data from Public Health Ontario shows that 1,261 people died from an opioid overdose in Ontario last year. That marked an increase from 2016, when 867 people died.
During the spring election campaign, Ford said he was opposed to safe-injection and overdose-prevention sites. The Tory government paused the planned openings of three overdose-prevention sites this the summer until it conducted the review, a move that drew strong criticism from harm-prevention workers and many in the medical community.
Elliott said those sites in Thunder Bay, St. Catharines and Toronto, will now be allowed to open.
She acknowledged that Ford’s views were well known but said after she presented the findings of her review to the premier they agreed that the services were important.
“The premier always indicated that he wanted a evidence-based review to be done to ensure that we were making the right decision,” she said. “We did present that evidence and the premier and I went through it in detail and we came to the same conclusions.”
Gillian Kolla, of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, said the minister has listened to the experts and called the continuation of the program a positive sign. But capping the number of sites in the province to just 21 is a problem, she said.
“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.”
The CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario praised the government for linking overdose prevention with treatment services but said funding will have to flow to back up that commitment because in some instances rehabilitation spaces are not publicly funded.
“The fact that the services will be connected cannot hurt at all,” said Doris Grinspun. “But it will mean we’ll need more funding for those who do want to access treatment.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government review was done as a “re-branding exercise” when the Tories knew the health research all pointed in the same direction.
“It’s clear Mr. Ford was not in favour of these sites,” she said. “It’s clear that the minister responsible has won this battle but it shouldn’t be like this. The evidence was clear all along.”
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner called on the government to lift the cap on the number of sites, saying that limiting the total number of sites where people can access life-saving services is wrong.
Overdose-prevention sites are temporary facilities approved by the province following a federal decision to grant an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Safe-injection sites, meanwhile, are more permanent locations approved by the federal government after a more extensive application process.
The Tories had been under increasing pressure to keep the sites open after launching their review of the program. In August, more than 100 health groups issued an open letter to the province saying the government’s review was “unnecessary” and a moratorium on opening such facilities was troubling.