Recovering addicts will have greater access to drug replacement therapy Suboxone in a move the Manitoba government says will help combat the current opioid crisis.
"There are far too many Manitobans that find themselves with an addiction, whether it's opiates or others, because they simply did not know what it is they were taking, or did not know the deadly effects of the drugs they were taking," Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said Monday.
"This will help Manitobans with opioid addictions recover and lead healthier lives."
Suboxone will now be covered under Manitoba's Pharmacare program, which helps people with lower incomes pay for prescribed medication.
Doctors will be able to prescribe Suboxone more freely, but they first have to complete a six to eight hour training course, Goertzen said.
A provincial spokesperson said there are 40 to 50 physicians in Manitoba who have completed the course and are prescribing Suboxone. Pharmacists who wish to be certified prescribers also must take the course.
Like methadone, Suboxone is prescribed to those addicted to opioids such as fentanyl, except it comes in a pill form, is more stable and is longer lasting.
Dr. Joss Reimer, medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, applauded Monday's announcement but said it's time Manitoba develops a province-wide harm reduction strategy to truly have an impact on addiction.
"Right now we have organizations functioning at the community levels but to have something from top-down that could meet them in the middle would probably be the best way that we could address the situation," she said.
'Investment worth making'
Ben Fry, chief executive officer with the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, said covering Suboxone under the Pharmacare program is a "ray of sunshine" for patients, their families and health-care providers.
"It's an investment worth making," he said.
The coverage changes bring an upfront cost for taxpayers, but Fry said the long-term economic, social and community health benefits "far outweigh the initial costs."
"For every dollar of investment in addictions and mental health, it saves $7 of longer-term health-care costs," Fry said, citing a 2015 report from Manitoba's chief public health officer.
Goertzen said current estimates suggest the program will cost about $150,000 a year, provided the majority of methadone users switch over to Suboxolone.
Manitoba joins B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Newfoundland in covering Suboxolone. The move was inspired by expert advice government officials received at an all-provinces opioid addictions conference last fall, Goertzen said.
"In my own family we have been touched significantly from addiction," Goertzen said.
"My father was an addict and died from his addiction, so I know how complex these issues are and how difficult they are. And I also know how difficult it is to speak out about addiction. I'm pleased that many of the families that have been touched continue to do so."
Dr. Ginette Poulin, medical director of the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, said Suboxone is a safer alternative to methadone.
"Importantly, with the increased accessibility of these two opiate agonist treatments, we not only increase the chances of success for patients, but we also improve health and social outcomes on both the individual and at the population level," Poulin said in a statement.
New addictions workers
The province announced funding for three new permanent staff at the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba's River Point Centre, a 30-suite addiction recovery complex on Magnus Avenue.
Fry said the suites provide important transitional supports for people trying to recover from addictions. The fully furnished units have a kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. Rental rates are provided at social assistance levels, Fry said.
The Addictions Foundation of Manitoba also has changed the name of its methadone intervention and needle exchange program to the Manitoba opioid support and treatment program.
The new name better reflects the province-wide base of recovering addicts using Manitoba's two clinics in Winnipeg and Brandon, Fry said. The clinics serve people from Thompson, Selkirk, Steinbach, The Pas, Flin Flon, Swan River and other communities.
Consulting firm Virgo Planning and Evaluation has been hired to review how addictions and mental health services can be better co-ordinated in Manitoba. The review is expected to be completed early next year, Goertzen said.