As B.C. marks the sixth anniversary of the overdose crisis being declared a provincial health emergency, Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond says she is relieved the all-party Select Standing Committee on Health is ready to get to work.
Bond was appointed to the provincial health committee which is tasked with reviewing the overdose crisis, including mental health and addiction supports and examining the urgent and ongoing illicit drug toxicity crisis.
Bond said for more than a year, she and Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau had been asking Premier John Horgan to call the select standing committee on health to specifically examine the overdose crisis.
“It's taken a while to have the committee activated, but it is important that the government finally responded, and the work now begins,” said Bond.
“I think our primary goal is to make sure that we are responding in every way possible to work across party lines, to try to figure out what we are going to do to deal with what is a crisis in our province.”
The committee has been tasked to review patterns of use, the drug market, the role of organized crime, as well as the increase in toxicity coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think we need to treat it with a significant sense of urgency. It's a crisis and month after month, after month, in our province we continue to see record numbers of deaths,” said Bond.
“We need to talk about what are we doing today? What more do we need to do and how do we work with all legislators to do the absolute most we can.”
The latest data from the BC Coroner’s report shows that in February 2022, there were 174 suspected drug toxicity deaths which equates to about 6.2 deaths per day. Northern Health saw 13 of those deaths during the month of February with seven occurring in Prince George.
B.C.’s Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe says the province needs to act quickly to provide a safe, regulated source of the rugs people are using in every community across the province or people will continue to be vulnerable to the illicit drug market.
Bond pointed to the coroner’s death review panel on illicit drugs, which was released in March and recommends specific actions.
“My perspective has always been that we need to look at that report, examine it, make sure that it is certainly part of the discussion. As we look ahead, we need to concentrate on a, on a full spectrum of discussion that includes education, prevention, how we deal with treatment and recovery,” said Bond.
“There is a broad spectrum of issues that need to be discussed certainly safe supply is one of those topics and I fully expect the committee to grapple with what impact that would have, what impact that is having and what needs to be done.”
Northern Health has the highest death rate in the province with 63 deaths per 100,000 individuals. Overall, the rate in BC is 44 deaths per 100,000 individuals in 2022.
So far in 2022, Northern Health has had 32 illicit drug overdose deaths with 16 of them occurring in Prince George.
Bond said the committee also needs to be look at these issues from a regional perspective because deaths are occurring across the province and it’s not just an issue that affects larger urban centres.
“We certainly saw with the numbers released recently that northern B.C. is certainly facing some significant challenges,” said Bond.
“The people on the committee are legislators, they're not health professionals so we need to listen, to learn and then to think about how is the situation similar across the province? When I look at those numbers, I think we do need to look at it from a regional perspective, as well as what can we do more broadly as a province.”
Bond said the committee has had its initial meeting and will be meeting frequently with a goal to report back to the legislature in the fall.
“But in the meantime, there's a lot of work to do, you know, we have to roll up our sleeves, do the homework,” said Bond.
“We have over six people a day dying in our province and that is a crisis. I know that I need to listen, to learn, and to do my part to better understand what the issues are and what we as legislators can do through policy decisions that will make a difference.”
The health committee is being chaired by NDP MLA Niki Sharma (Vancouver-Hastings) and also includes Peace River North MLA Dan Davies, Green leader Sonia Furstenau, and MLAs Susie Chant, Pam Alexis, Trevor Halford, Doug Routley, Harwinder Sandhu, and Mike Starchuk.
- with files from Alaska Highway News