Open Letter: Ottawa’s opioid crisis demands immediate government action on timely access to treatment and improved front line care

Fullerton for Kanata-Carleton, Kanata, Election
From the Desk of Dr. Merrilee Fullerton – January 27, 2017
January 27, 2017
Fullerton for Kanata-Carleton, Kanata, Election
CFRA: Dr. Fullerton discussing the opioid crisis
March 5, 2017
Fullerton for Kanata-Carleton, Kanata, Election

Where should our health dollars go — to more bureaucracy and studies or to timely access to treatment and improved front line care? Unfortunately, this is not a rhetorical question given how misdirected the provincial government is in addressing Ottawa’s latest health care crisis.

At Monday’s public information session in Kanata answers to questions from concerned parents and others on the recent surge in opioid-related overdoses in this region were not straightforward. As a family physician who served the families of Kanata for decades and as a mother who has raised three children in this community, there is no doubt that our provincial government needs to re-examine its priorities. I have spent my career attempting to make medical care more responsive and effective for patients and the community. Attending Monday’s event confirmed that addressing opioids in our community is more important than ever.

As a past member of the Board of Health for the City of Ottawa, I know this is a highly complex issue. Yes, addressing opioid use is and will be complicated, but understanding that the lives of our children hang in the balance is not.  In Ottawa, a harsh reality exists in illicit drug use including that of counterfeit pharmaceuticals laced with fentanyl. Remarkably, potential death can result from even just one use or one pill. With this reality, spending on education, prevention, and accessible drug treatment should be a priority.

On Monday, anguished parents told their stories of seeking treatment for their children but being unsuccessful at finding a detox bed or an accessible treatment program. One told of being sent by their health care provider to what seemed to be appropriate health facility only to be turned away in part because they had not used the central referral/intake system created by the regional LHIN. Instead of creating obstacles to treatment programs, government should be creating more points of access to treatment.

No matter what health provider or health facility is accessed there needs to be a direct path to treatment when addiction intervention is sought. We have immediate resources for people who have sustained life-threatening injuries but for people and families needing immediate resources and intervention for drug use our government offers them wait lists of many weeks or months. This is unconscionable.

While education & prevention, and awareness programs have an important role to play in deterring drug use, these efforts must be backed up with treatment programs that are accessible when needed. Waiting months for drug treatment means lost opportunity and lost lives particularly with fentanyl seeping into our communities. The nature of new highly addictive and deadly drugs in our communities requires a new approach.

Public health programs, policing, and medical facilities for addiction are struggling to respond in a timely and effective way to the growing trend in deadly drug use that appears to be shifting eastward from western Canada. The trend is clear. There is no lack of concern but there IS a lack of targeted government funding for much needed response efforts to tackle a growing scourge.

How can we be short on funds in this time of need? Because the priority given to ever-expanding the health care bureaucracy means important areas of health services, such as addiction and drug deterrence programs are left without adequate resources. The Ontario Liberal government’s plan to expand the bureaucratic-heavy LHINs with an additional 70 plus sub-LHINs is just one example of how more administration is diverting tax dollars away from front line care. Growing the bureaucracy is not the way to care for our children or people in need. That must change.

The funding challenge is further burdened with the waste of billions of tax dollars related to failed government policies in the energy sector. This has resulted in billions of tax dollars unavailable to help our children and family members at their most vulnerable times. People are tired of government apologies and explanations. Clearly, words must be replaced with action.

Authorities call for more data. This may be well-intentioned and consistent with the modern-day data-laden efforts but the problem is already clear. There are deadly drugs in our community of which one dose can kill. Measuring and monitoring and gathering data without providing immediate and timely access to treatment becomes an obstacle to care not an improvement. People who want and need treatment should have the same rapid response as a life-threatening injury requiring emergency assessment and treatment. This should not only be as a treatment response but needs to include a special community tactical response. Those people who do not want treatment are another issue and more legal reflection will be required to address families who require other interventions. We cannot wait to analyze further data; action is immediately required.

A task force to address the opioid crisis in this area should be assembled and empowered to provide tangible solutions with no delays – within the next 90 days. Funding recommendations should be associated with each area addressed whether it is an effort in education and prevention, law enforcement including removal of machines for pressing illicit pills, or detox and treatment options.

As a mother, as a physician, as a resident of Ottawa, I implore the Premier and her provincial government to take swift and meaningful steps to address this opioid crisis.


Dr. Merrilee Fullerton

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