'Safe site' backers point to potential tax savings

Advocates of government-sanctioned injection sites for drug users have a new argument for opening such facilities in Ottawa: a potential saving to taxpayers of at least $1 million a year.

The figure appears in a study published this week that compares the estimated cost of operating two medically supervised injection sites with the health care savings of averting nine HIV infections and 88 hepatitis C infections drug users could otherwise get from sharing dirty needles.

Lead researcher Ehsan Jozaghi of Simon Fraser University said in an interview Tuesday that the findings present “strong arguments for having these facilities in Ottawa to prevent HIV and hepatitis C infections, which cost the health care system millions of dollars a year.”

A coalition of supporters for Ottawa sites hopes the prospective savings will catch the attention of those who so far have felt removed from the contentious issue of safe injection sites. North America has just one facility, a Vancouver storefront called Insite, and federal and provincial politicians have rejected calls to open similar clinics in other Canadian cities.

In Ottawa, Mayor Jim Watson and Police Chief Charles Bordeleau are opposed to the creation of a supervised injection site.

“If you don’t feel like you are near the issue, I understand why the dollars-and-cents (aspect) would be more valuable,” said Catherine Hacksel of the Campaign for Safer Consumption Sites in Ottawa.

“Even policy-makers, if they’re not taking the time to talk to drug users or to be really concerned about what’s going in, maybe in some shelters or in some lower income areas — if that’s not really a priority, if they want to at least have money to fix more of those issues, this is the first thing that could make an impact on them.”

Jozaghi said his peer-reviewed study, published on the Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention and Policy online journal, was prompted by an earlier University of Toronto study that suggested that two supervised injection sites in Ottawa and three in Toronto would reduce the spread of disease from shared needles. It said multiple sites would better serve the more dispersed drug populations of the Ontario cities and reduce any impact on neighbourhoods — a key issue in the urban areas most likely to be home to the sites.

Using figures from that study and other published research, Jozaghi determined that health care savings of $5 million would outweigh the $4-million cost of operating two Ottawa clinics. But he said the actual saving would probably be much higher because the facilities, based on the Vancouver experience, would also reduce other infection rates, as well as overdose deaths. Neither was factored in because of the difficulty in determining specific costs to health care and society in general.

“If we had taken the prevention of overdose deaths into account, and also the bacteria infections into account, obviously the cost-effectiveness would have been far more (evident),” said the researcher, a PhD candidate in criminology at the Vancouver university.

Hacksel believes volunteer labour could reduce the estimated cost of the Ottawa sites, providing further savings.

Her coalition held a rally on the steps of Parliament Hill in March in support of supervised sites. It’s also working with the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, which with other agencies continues to work on a proposal for an injection site in Ottawa. The centre had planned last year to seek an exemption to drug laws that would allow such a centre, as allowed by a 2011 Supreme Court decision on Vancouver’s Insite, but it delayed its application so it could co-ordinate efforts with groups in other cities.

A related project is the PROUD (Participatory Research in Ottawa, Understanding Drugs) study launched this year to chart the experiences of 860 injection-drug and crack users. Organizers hope the study will help build the case for a safe injection site.

By Robert Bostelaar
Source: Ottawa Citizen