EDMONTON – Alberta’s opposition parties say the government is failing in the fight against opioids like fentanyl and must declare a public health emergency.
Members of all four opposition parties say such a declaration would free up resources and co-ordinate the work of the multiple agencies involved.
The province says 343 people died in Alberta from apparent fentanyl overdoses last year — a 25 per cent increase from 257 deaths in 2015. The total number of deaths was 117 the year before that.
“We’re not getting a handle on this,” Liberal Leader David Swann said Monday at a legislature news conference. “It this were an influenza outbreak, you would see a state of emergency called.”
Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark said an emergency call sends a message: “It shows that they care and it shows that they’re taking this issue seriously.”
The province began taking steps on a number of fronts last year to deal with the crisis. It has expanded access to and use of naloxone, an injection that can save an overdose victim from dying.
It is spending more than $2.6 million for police to crack down on fentanyl distribution and more than $700,000 for projects that would ultimately allow safe injection sites.
More treatment beds are being opened and the government is working with doctors on opioid replacement therapy and to reduce inappropriate prescription of opioids. The Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons recently laid out new rules for prescribing opioids including requiring doctors to justify their prescribing decisions.
Associate Health Minister Brandy Payne said declaring a public health emergency is not necessary.
She said the province already has the administrative authority to deal with the crisis and is now negotiating with the federal government to get a share of $65 million to help provinces to fight the drug.
Payne said a public health emergency would be too heavy-handed.
“(A public health emergency) unlocks powers that aren’t appropriate for an addiction and a mental health crisis,” said Payne. “We’d be able to go into people’s homes, seize private property (and) quarantine people against their will.
“Ultimately we know that people do best in treatment if they enter it willingly.”
When asked if she believes the steps being taken — including the broader distribution of naloxone — is holding or reducing the death rate, Payne said that’s helping but “there’s more to be done.”
She said updated fatality numbers should be available by month’s end.
On Monday afternoon, members of the legislature took part in an emergency debate on opioid abuse, which is a growing concern across Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Vancouver last week to discuss the issue and called it a national crisis. Opioid-related overdoses claimed 922 lives in British Columbia last year.
In February, B.C. declared a public health emergency and received $10 million from the federal government to take more action.
Payne said B.C. needed to call the emergency to allow health regions to share data.
She said that is not necessary in Alberta because all front-line health delivery is handled by one body, Alberta Health Services.