'A mess': Patients, doctors upset over minister’s comment on treatment program

Residents at the Victoria facility will be the first in the Island Health region to receive iOAT services. (Island Health)

The end of an Alberta program used to treat severe opioid use disorders — and comments from a minister about freezing funding to it — are attracting controversy. 

The program, Injectable Opioid Agonist Treatment, is commonly referred to iOAT. It started in 2018 as a pilot project by the former NDP government.

The UCP stretched funding to it for one year before announcing recently that money will not be extended past March 2021. 

The province says it plans to transition patients to other clinics, but many in the program call that move “a death sentence.”

“I’ve tried getting help several times in the last decade, but nothing has really worked until I found iOAT,” said patient Keigan Tierney. “I’m looking at it as a stepping stone to get me to where I need to be.”

The iOAT program is offered at two centres in Edmonton and Calgary. 

But the funding announcement isn’t the only thing drawing criticism. 

During the Oct. 22 afternoon session in the Alberta Legislature, Jason Luan, the associate minister for mental health and addiction, called iOAT, “a mess.”

The associate minister claims the program was left by the previous government with no transition plan. “Our approach is to take a recovery focused system and create a full continuum of care,” Luan said. 

“I think there is a clear confusion out of there. I hope the opposition didn’t help to make that even worse.”

He calls what the UCP have done with addiction treatments “the most comprehensive plan in Canada.”

But iOAT doctor Krishna Balachandra believes transitioning those in the program isn’t as easy the associate minister says it is. 

“Most of the patients that we have received have failed the traditional drug treatments,” he said. 

“Unless you’ve lived it or had a family member live it, you can’t have a judgement on it,” said Keigan’s mother, Susan Tierney. “It’s not a mess in our life. It saved our family.”

In 2020, Alberta overdoses have seen a drastic, record-breaking spike. 

The Alberta COVID-19 Opioid Response Surveillance Report Q2 2020 says there were 449 unintentional opioid-related deaths in the first months of 2020 — an increase of 99 from the first half of 2019.

The majority of the 449 deaths — 414 — came as a result of a fentanyl overdose, the report said.

The opposition NDP claim the associate minister has a “personal prejudice” when it comes to addictions. 

The provincial government has been outspoken on supervised consumption sites in the past, saying they are not the answer to Alberta’s drug problems. 

At one point, the province froze funding and closed Canada’s busiest site, which was in Lethbridge. 

“This is actually supported by medical evidence,” Balachandra told CTV News. “This is not just about pure addiction. (Patients) have other mental health issues and medical issues so we help to sort all of those things out.”

Eleven patients, including Tierney, are currently suing the provincial government for its iOAT decision. The plaintiffs say they are not after money but instead want a reversal of the decision and for iOAT to be continued past March.

“I would describe my life in the past as a mess,” Tierney said. “iOAT helped me clean it up.”