Ottawa must decide whether it wants a safe injection site: provincial health minister

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins has suggested he will only consider funding a supervised injection site for Ottawa if the project has municipal approval.

In a statement issued to Postmedia, Hoskins said decisions about supervised injection sites rest mostly with federal and municipal governments.

“I understand that such a proposal is currently being considered by the City of Ottawa,” he said. “Our government has been clear that we will consider a request for a safe injection site if a municipality were to come forward with a proposal.”

Asked to clarify whether the province would consider a proposal that came directly from a health centre, not a municipality, an official in Hoskins’s office said, “We’re not going to prejudge the outcomes of the municipal process.”

Hoskins said he hopes the federal government’s new openness to supervised injection sites will act as a catalyst, and bring political leaders together to address the issue.

Earlier this year, Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott approved Canada’s second supervised injection site in Vancouver, and invited applications for more such services.

A supervised injection site must receive a federal exemption from national drug laws before it can apply for provincial funding.

“We now have a (federal) government that understands the science and is willing to make decisions based on science and evidence,” Hoskins said. “This provides us an opportunity to do just that — but we must allow the city the opportunity to consider this request before moving forward.”

Hoskins’s statement turns the heat up on Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, a former Liberal cabinet minister at Queen’s Park, who has long opposed a supervised injection site in the city. He has said provincial tax dollars are better spent on drug and alcohol treatment programs.

While Hoskins may want Watson to compromise — or be swayed by studies that show supervised injection sites reduce death, disease and drug-related litter — the mayor has so far shown no sign he’s willing to budge. Watson has said there’s no right or wrong answer to the controversial question of whether a safe injection site should open in Ottawa, only opinions.

“I have an opinion, I’ve been asked about it, I’ve been very consistent,” he told reporters earlier this week.

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre wants to add a supervised injection service to its downtown facility to reduce disease transmission and overdose deaths among the city’s drug addicts. It has vowed to push ahead with the project even in the face of opposition from civic leaders.

The issue appears headed for a showdown at city council, but that won’t happen until after Health Canada considers the health centre’s application for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The health centre expects to make that application this fall.

A preliminary budget prepared by the community health centre shows the safe injection service will require $250,000 to $300,000 a year to operate.

In December 2015, a St. Michael’s Hospital researcher published a study that found one safe injection site in Ottawa would avert 358 HIV infections and 323 hepatitis C infections over the course of 20 years. That would save an estimated $32.3 million in health care costs, the study said, but the site would cost $31.5 million to build and operate.

Rob Boyd, an executive with the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, said the proposed supervised injection service in Ottawa would be much cheaper since it would operate from the basement of the agency’s existing Nelson Street facility.

Hoskins said the government of Premier Kathleen Wynne is committed to harm reduction since it “has been demonstrated to save lives and reduce costs to the health care system.” The government, he added, has plans to increase funding for mental health and addictions services by $138 million over the next three years. 

By Andrew Duffy
Source: Ottawa Sun