MP Hughes calls on feds to come to the table on Oxy issues

Carol Hughes

by Alicia McCutcheon

OTTAWA—Last Thursday, Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes called on the federal government to help deal with the issue of the high number of Northern Ontarians addicted to the prescription narcotic OxyContin, in light of the drug being pulled from pharmacy shelves at the end of February.

It was announced late last month that the Purdue Pharma product would be replaced by a new formulation of the drug, OxyNEO, a pill that’s harder to crush and that will turn to a jelly-like substance when mixed with water, making it harder to snort or inject for abusers. Groups across Ontario, and Canada, felt blindsided by the news that the heavily prescribed drug would no longer be funded by the Ontario Drug Benefit program and also federally by the Non-Insured Health Benefits Program (the program that covers the cost for some First Nations people) for new prescriptions. Physicians can also no longer prescribe OxyNEO to those on a drug benefit program without the consent of the provincial government.

“This is going to particularly impact the First Nations community,” Ms. Hughes told the House of Commons last week. “In Cat Lake First Nation alone, the addiction had affected 70 percent of the community, and in the Sioux Lookout Zone of 25,000 members, 9,000 are addicted to OxyContin.”

She noted the concern of health officials that those addicted will turn to other drugs to fill the void left behind by OxyContin. “Without some form of assistance, the First Nations, for the most part, do not have the resources to help the sheer number of people who will be affected by serious withdrawal symptoms,” the MP said in a release.

“Enforcement and health agencies are ringing alarm bells about the potential of a serious withdrawal crisis,” Ms. Hughes addressed the House. “What exactly is the government doing to work with enforcement and health agencies to deploy a plan to prevent this looming health crisis?”

In response, Minister John Duncan, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, accused Ms. Hughes of “fear mongering,” and brushed her concerns aside, Ms. Hughes reported.

“It speaks to the government’s lack of commitment to their primary responsibility to provide health care to First Nations,” the MP said after the House had closed its session. “I think they are being pennywise and pound foolish if they can’t see the role they are obligated to play in the crisis.”

Ms. Hughes told The Expositor that in 2009, the Assembly of First Nations brought the crisis of opiate dependency on reserves to the attention of the federal government, noting that the government has had time to come up with an emergency plan, but has failed to do so.

The Ontario government has announced it is working on a plan through the Ministry of Health to help First Nations communities in Northern Ontario to cope with the crisis.

A task force has yet to be determined, according to CBC News, but the group is expected to consist of members of First Nations communities, those who work at detox centres, people recovering from opiate addiction as well as members of the province’s narcotics panel.

“We need to make sure this is done as a collaboration between the province and the federal government as First Nations medical care is the responsibility of the federal government,” Ms. Hughes said.

She noted the Suboxone treatment, an alternative, some say more effective therapy, to popular methadone—a narcotic medication treatment for opiate dependence.

“The success rate is very high,” she said. “The problem with many First Nations communities is how you get from point A to point B. It’s a very structured treatment.”

“Methadone is not proven to be as successful,” she continued. “People continue to use (while on Methadone) and can sell it. The chance of recurrence is very high.”

The MP shared a story she was told of the M’Chigeeng daycare calling for an ambulance when a small child was dropped off for care and was exhibiting strange symptoms. The child had apparently found her mother’s Methadone in the fridge (an orange drink, as it was mixed with Tang) and ingested it. According to reports, Ms. Hughes continued, the child was stabilized in hospital.

“First Nations say they are seeing more success with Suboxone,” she added. “The government needs to spend that little bit extra to send them to (drug rehab) programs and we need to make sure resources are put into place. We also need to deal with the jurisdictional issues when it comes to opiate dependency,” Ms. Hughes noted that federal/provincial divide. “Ontario’s move is a step in the right direction, but the federal government needs to come to the table.”

The MP noted that for others, the selling of prescription drugs has become a matter of survival, noting senior constituents in Elliot Lake who do so to make ends meet. She’s also had people come to her office, asking for help in lobbying the government to keep their prescriptions covered.

“We can continue to turn a blind eye, but the point is it’s affecting every community, especially when we’re cutting back on resources that affect the most vulnerable of society,” Ms. Hughes concluded.