Sandy Hill health centre plans for 7-day-a-week supervised injection site

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre has asked the province for $1.4 million a year to operate a supervised injection site seven days a week, 12 hours a day in downtown Ottawa.

The estimated cost has more than quadrupled since a plan for the service was unveiled earlier this year.

Rob Boyd, director of the health centre’s harm reduction program, said costs have gone up as the service model changed in response to the public’s feedback — and to the quickening pace of the opioid epidemic.

Community members, he said, made it clear they want drug users to be able to access the centre’s medical, social and counselling services whenever they visit the injection site.

“They felt we needed to be open as many hours as possible: that this was not going to be a Monday to Friday, nine to five service,” he said. “What that does is scale up the cost of doing this.”

Boyd made the comments as federal Health Minister Jane Philpott announced Friday that the Liberal government will be making it easier for local agencies to open supervised injection sites in Canada. Philpott said the government will introduce legislation to streamline the current approvals process: agencies will have to meet five criteria to open a new supervised site instead of 26.

Naini Cloutier, executive director of the Somerset West Community Health Centre, welcomed the changes. “This is a very good news because it will certainly help us move faster,” she said.

The Somerset West health centre wants to open a supervised injection site that can accommodate four or five drug users at a time. The project remains in its planning stages, Cloutier said, with public consultations expected in April.

Rob Boyd said the new legislation comes too late for the Sandy Hill proposal. The centre is now finalizing its application based on the onerous 2015 system introduced by the former Conservative government, which passed the Respect For Communities Act after it lost a court bid to shutter the Vancouver safe injection site, Insite.

Boyd said he expects to submit an licence application to Health Canada by the end of the year; he wants to open the supervised injection site in the spring.

The health centre wants to accommodate up to six injection drug users at its current facility, but it needs an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in order to operate the service.

Under the existing process, the centre must prove that the service is needed, and submit opinion letters from the mayor, the police chief, the medical officer of health, and four other officials. Boyd said the centre is almost finished that work. “We’ve been working on this a very long time now,” he said.

Earlier this year, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins suggested that Ottawa city council will have to vote for a supervised drug injection site before the province funds it. But Boyd argued that municipal approval is an unnecessary step, particularly with powdered fentanyl already on the streets of Ottawa, and carfentanil — another dangerous opioid — likely on the way.

“We really can’t get opened fast enough in order to prevent a number of deaths,” he warned.

Ottawa’s board of health has endorsed the need for supervised injection sites in the city, but Mayor Jim Watson has said he would rather see public monies spent on treatment programs.

In 2014, Ontario recorded more than 700 deaths from opioid overdoses, making it the third leading cause of accidental death in the province.

In 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Conservative government’s attempt to close Insite was unconstitutional. The court accepted research evidence that showed the safe injection site had reduced local overdose deaths by more than one-third, while increasing the number of users going to treatment.

By Andrew Duffy
Source: Ottawa Citizen