195 new treatment beds won’t quell B.C. toxic drug deaths: advocates

Province announces $132-million infusion of funds to combat substance abuse to go with treatment beds and 130 new full-time jobs at recovery centres

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Adding new treatment beds to one of the only government-funded specialized substance use centres in the province is good news, say advocates, but not enough to quell the tidal wave of deaths mounting from a toxic, illicit drug supply.

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With a roster of doctors, nurses, social workers and two dozen patients with severe substance-use disorders and concurrent mental health challenges, Surrey’s Phoenix Society is no stranger to treating British Columbians experiencing homelessness and in the criminal justice system.

On Tuesday, the province announced 10 new beds for the nonprofit, part of a $132-million boost to substance-abuse treatment that will see a total of 195 new treatment beds and 130 full-time jobs added to recovery centres across the province.

The goal is more accessible, integrated substance-use treatment, said Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions, admitting that gaps between services have led to fatal outcomes.

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“I’m so sorry for every life lost,” Malcolmson said. “We don’t want patients to be discharged into the community without ongoing support … We don’t want to have a long wait for those wanting to step into detox beds.”

Keir Macdonald, CEO of Phoenix Society, said the provincial investment is a “significant step” towards expanding the nonprofit’s three-month recovery program that has a 70 per cent completion rate.

Addictions interventionist Andrew Bhatti, who has been sober for 15 years after spending eight-and-a-half years behind bars, said the province’s expansion of specialized treatment beds is not nearly enough to help the droves of British Columbians in dire need.

Latest statistics show an unparalleled death count from a poisoned B.C. illicit drug supply. In the first nine months of 2021, more than 1,500 people died from overdoses, a 24-per-cent increase from the 1,240 deaths recorded in the same span last year.

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“There’s not a chance 195 beds are enough,” said Bhatti, who works to support families and transport patients to substance-use treatment centres.

“There are more than 195 people with mental illness who are homeless using drugs on the streets of Vancouver right now, not to mention those whose families cannot afford private treatments, which cost up to $27,000 per month.”

Phoenix Society peer support worker Nelson Mendonca, who was in and out of the criminal justice system for decades battling with disordered drug use before receiving effective treatment.
Phoenix Society peer support worker Nelson Mendonca, who was in and out of the criminal justice system for decades battling with disordered drug use before receiving effective treatment. Photo by Handout

Bhatti said he has witnessed many clients wait months for intake into Phoenix Society.

“They’re buying their dope no matter what. It’s waiting for help with their addiction that’s killing them,” he said. “B.C. needs more treatment beds.

“People that go into treatment programs that don’t have resources –– including clinical counsellors to help those suffering from complex trauma or mental illnesses or doctors for medically-assisted treatment –– only stay clean for a short time,” Bhatti continued, citing his own relapse as an example.

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“People need to be able to cope with life and not turn back to drugs upon reintegrating into society.”

Phoenix Society doctors prescribe opioid agonist treatment, including methadone and suboxone, to reduce opioid cravings and manage withdrawal symptoms for 40 per cent of its patients, according to Macdonald.

The multi-service agency also operated 80 units of housing onsite with social workers offering employment services to patients in recovery.

Nelson Mendonca, a former Phoenix patient who now works as a peer support worker at the nonprofit, said its program afforded him the opportunity to stabilize his drug use outside of jail. Behind bars, he was introduced to a slew of illicit substances for several years.

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“I entered Phoenix’s program on house arrest,” Mendonca said. “I was helped by two counsellors and many other support staff.”

Along with new treatment beds, the province announced an addiction-medicine consult team to operate out of Burnaby hospital and an expansion of virtual addictions centre services for British Columbians facing barriers to access, including those in rural communities.

Bhatti is urging the B.C. government to fund more specialized treatment beds so that he “won’t have to see any more of (his) friends die” from an overdose.

sgrochowski@postmedia.com


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