NWT gets over $766,000 to improve opioid addiction treatment

From left to right: MP Michael McLeod, Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy, and territorial addictions expert Dr. Jennifer Harris pose for a photo during the funding signing. CKLB/Agata Gutkowska

NWT residents with opioid addictions may have an easier time finding treatment in the near future.

On January 22nd MP Michael McLeod announced that the governments of Canada and Northwest Territories will provide just over $766,000 to fund opioid addiction treatment in the NWT.

Seated at a table with Glen Abernethy, Minister of Health and Social Services, and Dr. Jennifer Harris, territorial addictions expert, McCleod stated: “Under this agreement, our governments will contribute a combined total of $766,000 to improve access to treatment services for people in the NWT with problematic substance use.”

The federal government is providing $500,000 of that combined total, with the remaining $266,171 being covered by the territorial government. The federal total is coming out of Canada’s Emergency Treatment Fund, set up to help provinces across the nation fight the ongoing opioid crisis.

The funding will help the territorial government enhance access to opioid agonist therapy, a common treatment for opioid addiction. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the therapy involves giving the patient methadone or buprenorphine to prevent withdrawal and reduce cravings for opioid drugs. The money will also go towards increasing practitioner training and identifying strengths and gaps in treatment resources across various NWT communities.

Jennifer Harris runs the territory’s current opioid maintenance therapy program out of the Yellowknife Primary Care Centre. Serving about 30 people a year, Harris says that about 10-15 patients utilize the program’s services at any given time. The program provides patients with access to replacement therapies and counselling.

“We’ve had many successes within the opioid maintenance therapy program and have watched people rebuild their lives with this type of support,” said Harris.

Harris said that the expansion of the program’s services across the NWT will improve access to treatment in other territorial regions and high-risk groups such as incarcerated populations.

As for the possibility of opening a territorial drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, Minister Abernethy stated that it is not currently on the table. “A treatment centre isn’t the solution for some people. In fact, it is the exact wrong place for some people to go depending on their addiction and how they’re dealing with it.”

Abernethy said that people struggling with addictions in the NWT wanted options, so the government put millions of dollars into on-the-land treatment programs,  signed contracts with four treatment facilities in southern Canada, and helped fund traditional healing programs led by indigenous organizations.

“Bottom line is today we have way more options than we’ve ever had for people who are struggling,” said Abernethy.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, more than 2,000 Canadians died from opioid use in the first half of 2018 alone. Sixty per cent of overdoses occur in people aged 20 to 29. Eighty per cent of opioid-related deaths are male.

MP Michael McCleod is not confident that the funding will solve NWT’s opioid problem. He said, “I’m not completely certain that this is going to solve the issue and it may be a growing concern. As we move forward, we’ll probably be looking at [what we’ll do] for next steps.”

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