An underwhelming roadmap for addiction treatment
For six months Health Minister Doug Currie promised action to the growing issue of addiction on Prince Edward Island. He repeatedly reassured Islanders delay was necessary to develop a comprehensive government response to an independent review of addiction services.
When the minister finally got around to stepping in front of microphones last week, government’s highly anticipated response to the MRSB report was anything but comprehensive. It is an under-whelming disappointment that will do little to improve, at least in the near term, how we treat opiate and alcohol addiction and mental health issues.
It is estimated that eight per cent of the population suffers from addiction. In a population of 140,000 this equates to more than 11,000 Islanders. It is estimated three per cent, or more than 4,000 Islanders, are addicted to opiates. It is a very serious problem that demands a very serious, and costly, investment.
In a very real way opiate addiction is overwhelming available services, with the trickledown effect that all other treatments, including alcoholism and mental health, suffer. To put the opiate issue in context, it can take up to two years to access a methadone program. This is simply not acceptable. These are our sons and daughters, our friends and neighbours.
The initial portion of methadone treatment must be conducted on an inpatient basis, primarily at Mount Herbert Addiction Treatment Centre, which is located off existing public transportation routes outside Charlottetown. This is a detriment to ready access to treatment for many. Until last week the provincial government shied away from utilizing Suboxone, an effective methadone-like treatment for youth, because of the $20 per day cost. Treatment regimes can last years.
That the Ghiz government is finally embracing at least limited use of Suboxone – it will only be available for those under 24 – is a good start.
One of the most proactive components of the provincial plan has nothing to do with government at all. In the new year, a group of Charlottetown area doctors will open a methadone clinic to serve 100 patients. The clinic will be operated independent of government. This should eliminate the waiting list for treatment but barely make a dent in provincial demand. One of the doctors involved cited, as a key reason for starting the clinic, a desire not be to constrained by middle management bureaucracy. It is a telling comment about the state of health care on the Island. Too much of our focus and financial resources go toward supporting the bureaucracy rather than the delivery of frontline services.
What is confusing about Minister Currie’s announcement is why it took so long. There is precious little that could have not have easily been announced in April when government received the MRSB report, itself a reaction to concerns raised by the provincial Auditor General.
Rather than focus on frontline services, the minister is opting to add a new layer to the bureaucracy through creation of a new, unadvertised position titled Chief Mental Health and Addictions Officer. It will be Dr. Rhonda Matters task to develop a long-term addiction strategy. Is Dr. Matters the best qualified for this job? Is the job even needed? Islanders simply don’t know because Minister Doug Currie did not ask.
Creation of the Chief Mental Health and Addictions Officer position does raise questions about jurisdictional control, bloated bureaucracy and relevance. Prince Edward Island already has a Medical Director for Mental Health and Addictions. What makes this new position necessary? How is it different? How will the two positions work together? Who is superior? Why waste money creating a new silo within an already bursting health care bureaucracy?
There are good elements to Doug Currie’s plan. But it does not even begin to take the baby steps necessary to adequately deal with the issue of addiction and mental health treatment. Rather than real action we have the perception of action. And while the bureaucracy shuffles an endless stream of paper addicted Islanders will continue to suffer.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at email@example.com