City's top doctor speaks out against funding cuts to 3 overdose-prevention sites in Toronto
Codi Wilson, CP24.com
Published Monday, April 1, 2019 11:20AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, April 1, 2019 4:31PM EDT
Toronto’s top doctor, along with the chair of the Toronto Board of Health, are speaking out against the province’s decision not to fund three overdose-prevention sites that are currently operating in the city.
At a news conference at city hall on Monday, health-care advocates called on the provincial government to reverse its decision and provide funding for the affected Toronto sites.
“The opioid overdose crisis here in our city is the defining health crisis of our time. In 2017, there were 308 deaths due to opioid overdose here in our city,” Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, said Monday.
“I would have to say that I am disappointed and I would suggest that it goes beyond disappointment. It is around the fact that these are life-saving services. There is clearly a need.”
On Friday, the province announced that fifteen overdose-prevention sites across Ontario would get the green light for operation, including six in Toronto.
Under the new model, six previously licenced sites were not approved.
The Toronto sites that no longer receive funding include the St. Stephen’s Community House on Augusta Avenue and Street Health Community Nursing on Dundas Street East.
The Works, the city-run site at the Toronto Public Health building on Victoria Street, is currently under review but has not yet been approved.
"On Friday afternoon at 3 p.m., we had two sites in the city of Toronto receive a phone call telling them that they had to shut down by midnight (on Sunday) and so imagine you provide life-saving health care and you are told without notice, without warning, and without a transition plan for your clients that you have to shut down in 48 hours," Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of Toronto's board of health, said during an interview with CP24 on Monday.
"Now thankfully the federal government stepped in to provide a legal exemption to allow them to stay open but we have two sites in downtown Toronto operating right now without funding and so we literally have life-saving health-care agencies hosting bake sales to provide their services."
Overdose-prevention services 'not something you cross town for,' operator says
Bill Sinclair, the executive director of St. Stephen’s Community House, said the decision came as a suprise to those who work at the facility.
“We’ve been doing it on an emergency basis for the last year, working really closely with the province…We really thought that this was a partnership that was benefiting everyone and we still want to have this partnership,” he said.
“This is a local service, this is not something you cross town for. People should have local supports that are tied in with things that they need on a daily basis and that they connect with us on a daily basis. For that, you need more than six to cover the city and you also definitely need them in all the high-risk neighbourhoods.”
Cressy and de Villa appealed to the province to not only restore the funding for the unapproved sites but expand overdose-prevention services.
“With numbers continuing as they are, now is not the time to reduce services, but in fact to maintain and enhance existing services and to expand them beyond what we’ve currently got," de Villa said.
In a statement released Friday, Mayor John Tory said he was “deeply troubled” by the province’s “sudden” announcement.
“This announcement that leaves Toronto Public Health's Victoria Street site in limbo and appears to close two other sites in the city is extremely disturbing, particularly because it came with no advanced warning or communication from the province,” Tory’s statement read, noting that he plans to take up his “strong concern” with provincial government officials.
“These sites all underwent extensive consultation and a lengthy approval process prior to their opening. Such short notice seems unnecessary and, at the very least, time extensions for the professional staff and clients should be considered.”
'If I put one beside your house, you’d be going ballistic,' Ford says
Speaking at an unrelated announcement on Monday morning, Premier Doug Ford said while he wants to help people struggling with drug addiction, he has heard from Toronto residents who don't want these facilities in their neighbourhood.
“It’s alright for people to say, ‘Yes. Help ‘em, help ‘em, help ‘em.' And with all due respect… if I put one beside your house, you’d be going ballistic," Ford told a reporter on Monday. "But I want to try to help these people. It’s ok. Ya help em,' but not in my backyard. That’s the reality of things.”
Ford said he believes his government has come up with a "great system."
"I make sure that anywhere we go into someone’s neighbourhood and put these safe injection sites... I always consult with the people. But I am passionate about helping people who have an addiction. That’s a high priority. I don’t want these people dying," the premier added.
"We are going to be supporting these people as much as we can and I think we have a great system and the minister of health has done an incredible job looking at wrap-around facilities so when we sit down and have consultation with these folks, hopefully we can get them into a rehab."
The province has set aside $31 million in annual funding for the sites approved under the new program.