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Rob Shaw: On treating addiction, big BC NDP promises aren't delivered

The large task of meeting commitments within the 'ministry of air'
Health, safety remain focus for new school year
Mental Health Minister Jennifer Whiteside acknowledges the government is behind on its commitments. (BC Government Flickr)

Municipal leaders frustrated at public street disorder may have pushed the NDP government into action on limiting open drug use, but they will likely find it harder to get meaningful short-term progress on another part of their request: Expanding addictions treatment spaces for those living in distress on city streets.

Much political rhetoric has been expended by the previous and current NDP premiers about funding new drug treatment beds, yet recent budget estimates for the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions give a glimpse at just how slow actual progress has been.

Consider the 123 new youth substance use beds promised by the province in August 2020, and billed at the time as “the single largest increase in youth treatment beds ever made in B.C., so more young people can get the care they need, when they need it, close to home.”

Fast forward to this month in the legislature, and BC United critic Elenore Sturko had a simple question: “How many of these beds are operational?”

Turns out, the answer is 32.

After almost three years, only 32 actual, usable, real-world beds. To call that unimpressive would do a disservice to the word.

Having to justify that dismal record was Mental Health Minister Jennifer Whiteside, who took over the portfolio in December and, you can tell, is pushing hard to overhaul what critics have nicknamed “the ministry of air.”

Another 51 youth beds are “in the start-up process,” she said, though it’s not clear exactly what that means. Another 45 “need some more work by health authorities.”

“The expectation is that 60 per cent of those beds will be up at the end of 2023,” said Whiteside.

The NDP will probably celebrate that milestone with a back-patting press release, but just 74 beds in 41 months is mediocre, at best.

The youth addictions treatment beds were promised by then minister Judy Darcy in 2020, who also crafted the larger “Pathway to Hope” addictions plan that New Democrats have been using as both a guiding document and a shield from criticism ever since.

The plan was supposed to get an update at the three-year mark. Previous minister Sheila Malcomson tried to do so, before Premier David Eby shuffled her out in favour of Whiteside. The work Malcolmson left behind was apparently not good enough.

“I am aware that we are due to provide an update report on the Pathway to Hope,” said Whiteside. “I will certainly take responsibility for the delay in that. I had wanted some fairly substantial edits to it when I assumed this ministry, and staff are working on that process.”

Overall, Whiteside did an impressive job in attempting to defend her ministry against a tough critic in Sturko. Perhaps if the NDP had put someone of her calibre and competence in charge of the mental health file years ago, the government wouldn’t be so far behind.

As it is, Whiteside is using all her skills to scramble to pull the system together to meet the demands of Eby, who is injecting $1 billion into mental health and addictions and wants both real-time data on the system’s wait times as well as, eventually, an elimination of wait times entirely.

You need only a brief glance at the ministry’s estimates debate to realize what a herculean task that is going to be.

For example, there is no data available for youth wait times for addictions treatment beds in B.C.

None at all. It just doesn’t exist.

“It is an obvious gap that we're working on filling,” said Whiteside.

Not only that, the province’s five health authorities are all over the map on tracking the current 3,260 publicly-funded adult and youth beds.

“Data has been collected in a somewhat idiosyncratic way, depending on what was required to provide services to their own populations,” Whiteside offered, at one point.

Northern Health couldn’t provide any data at all, she admitted. Island Health could only provide treatment bed data, and nothing on withdrawal management beds, detox beds, or sobering beds.

Given that black hole, it’s no wonder that when Sturko asked Whiteside what it would take to fulfil the premier’s promise of zero wait times for addictions treatment services, the minister was forced to dance around the question. It’s clear nobody in government actually knows the answer.

The only number the government appears to actually have is a 29.5 day “median” of “days between client referral and service initiation for community bed-based treatment and services.” The addictions ministry’s service plan calls for “wait times maintained or improved” from this benchmark in future years.

But that number doesn’t seem to paint the whole picture. It does not include initial detox, or withdrawal management beds, nor does it measure how many people fall out of the system waiting to transition from one type of bed to another on their recovery journey.

The ministry figure also doesn’t include the much-vaunted Red Fish Healing Centre in Coquitlam, which Eby has indicated is the gold-standard for treatment and will be expanded to other regions of the province.

The 105-bed facility combines mental health and addictions treatment for the most severe and complex patients. The wait time? An average of 107 days, said Whiteside.

Delays and lack of coordination for addictions treatment services in B.C. surely have some role to play in the continued record number of overdose deaths seen monthly in the province. The most recent figures show 206 people died of toxic drugs in April — the most recorded in any April since the public health emergency was declared in 2016. B.C. is currently on track for another record year of deaths.

Eby last week declared the overdose numbers “troubling.” The same word could be used to describe the state of the overall addictions treatment services under the New Democrat government.

Whiteside said she hopes to be in a better position by 2024 to have useable data on how many beds the province needs to reduce and eliminate wait times on treatment beds.

“That is absolutely our goal,” she said. “That's the objective of all of this extraordinary work that's being done in health authorities and across the ministry.”

Extraordinary work? Six years into the NDP government, when it comes to progress on addictions treatment, more like extraordinarily disappointing.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]