Politics

Shocking lapses in auditor general’s report on B.C. safe supply trial

Opinion: Three years into B.C.’s safer-supply drug program, the government is just starting to tackle big problems

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VICTORIA — As B.C. approaches the third anniversary of the safer supply drug program, along comes a report from the auditor general to explain why the New Democrats have trouble building support for the experiment.

“We found deficiencies in key areas,” said the report Tuesday by Auditor General Michael Pickup on the management of the safer supply by the ministries of health and mental health and addictions.

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“Specifically, the ministries did not develop or implement strategies to address prominent barriers to implementation, and did not effectively report publicly on the performance of prescribed safer supply.

“For these reasons we concluded that the ministries did not effectively monitor the initial provincewide implementation of prescribed safer supply.”

Some of the lapses were shocking, given recent controversies regarding the distribution of safer-supply drugs as replacements for the toxic illicit supply.

Take the problem of diversion, where prescribed safer -supply drugs are diverted to the illicit market.

The New Democrats discounted recent RCMP reports about significant diversions in Prince George, Campbell River and elsewhere.

The auditor general found the government has failed to get a handle on diversion, according to those in the front lines of the safer-supply program.

“Health-system partners and some health authorities believe that communication by the ministries about prescribed safer supply, specifically about diversion, has been weak,” wrote Pickup.

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The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions “has developed an enhanced monitoring plan on diversion, however they have not publicly reported that this work is underway.”

Moreover “there’s no communication plan for the ministries to publicly report the outcomes.”

Even where the government has compiled information, the auditor general discovered it has been reluctant to make it public.

“There is an internal prescribed safer-supply dashboard available to staff and partners of the ministries (e.g. regional health authority epidemiologists) with statistics for prescribed safer-supply prescribers and prescribed safer-supply clients,” he reports.

“The ministries had intended the dashboard to be public by September 2022, but this hadn’t occurred during the audit period.”

Nor has it occurred since. The audit covered the first two years of the safer-supply program, up to June 30, 2023.

The government, in responding to the auditor general’s report this week, admitted that the work is just now getting underway.

Pickup found the government is overly reliant on incomplete and out-of-date fact sheets about the performance of the safer-supply program.

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“The ministries’ current level of public reporting is insufficient for health system partners and the public to be informed about whether prescribed safer supply is meeting its intended outcomes effectively and efficiently,” concluded Pickup.

He and his staff also documented major failings in the management and delivery of safer supply.

The two ministries have failed to make “significant progress on some of the most challenging barriers, such as access in rural and remote communities.

“The ministries have documented issues — including program, legal, and medical practice barriers — but they haven’t assigned responsibility for the vast majority of specific steps to address them.”

Those inside the system also told the auditor general and his staff about the lack of progress at engaging key players in the delivery of safer-supply drugs.

“Prescribed safer supply relies on prescribers, and prescriber hesitancy has been a major barrier throughout the province,” says the report.

“We found that health authorities want the ministries to be proactive and facilitate more co-ordinated planning to create provincewide support for implementation.”

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But the auditor general and his staff “found no action plan” for extending safer supply across the province, including to rural, remote and Indigenous communities.

“Until these challenges are resolved, it’s unlikely the services will be fully implemented.”

The delay could be a matter of life and death for those in need of safer-supply drugs.

“Up to 225,000 people in B.C. may be at risk of death from the toxic drug supply, yet less than 5,000 of them access prescribed safer supply,” according to the auditor general.

“As the drug supply has become more toxic, the need for low-barrier access to prescribed safer supply has become more pressing. People continue to die in increasing numbers across the province and at a high rate in rural and remote areas.”

The auditor general also faulted the delivery of related programs for overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites.

“We concluded that the ministries did not ensure effective provincewide implementation of overdose prevention and supervised consumption services by the health authorities,” he concluded.

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Responding to these doubly damning findings Tuesday, Premier David Eby said the government has accepted all of the auditor-general’s recommendations and will begin implementation.

He missed the larger point in the report on safer supply.

“While the program is novel and is in a relatively early stage of implementation, the barriers are known and significant,” wrote the auditor general. “They should be addressed early on. We found substantive work hadn’t started in this regard.”

Almost three years in and the New Democrats are just getting started with what needed to be done from the outset.

But rest assured, they’ve got a bottomless supply of news releases claiming they’ve made great progress.

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