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Stepping Forward: Improving Addiction Care in BC

March 1, 2009

Addiction is a disease that touches every British Columbian in one way or another. Today it is estimated that almost 400,000 British Columbians suffer from some form of addiction or substance misuse. These people come from every socioeconomic, geographic, cultural, and age demographic within our province. 

The impact of addiction on British Columbia is immense. In 2006, it was estimated that substance abuse cost BC over $6 billion, or $1,500 per year for every British Columbian. Although we often see the tragedy of addiction on our streets, the majority of suffering occurs in people’s homes, at school, and at work across all parts of our province. While we tend to think of addiction in terms of illicit drugs, addiction to alcohol and gambling in BC are far more prevalent.

Despite the significant impact of addiction on our province, there are clear gaps in our system that result in people not getting the appropriate levels of care they need where they need it. Too often, emergency departments, law enforcement, and the workplace bear the brunt of addiction—and that is before we consider the impact on the addicted individuals and their families in their homes. Consider that in our health system: 

  • A recent study showed that as many as 1 in 10 visits to Vancouver General Hospital’s emergency room was for substance abuse.
  • Each year, BC uses enough hospital beds for substance abuse care to fill Kelowna General Hospital every day for a year.

To create a system where those pressures can be reduced and those resources can be allocated to other problems requires that we change our thinking in a fundamental way. We must begin to think of addiction as a chronic disease and invest our health care dollars accordingly, much in the same way as we have begun to do for diabetes and heart disease.

Therefore, the Doctors of BC is calling on the Premier and the Minister of Health to formally recognize addiction as a chronic disease and increase resources for addiction treatment and care in BC over the next 5 years. Addiction care infrastructure must be a priority in 2009, and the province must create 240 new detoxification spaces and 600 new addiction treatment beds by 2012.

The news is not all bad. The provincial government has significantly reinvested in mental health, addiction, and housing, particularly in recent years. Health Authorities have worked hard to develop services and long-term plans to expand and improve services. The Ministry of Health Services is also set to release a new 10-year mental health and addiction plan. However, new resources must be targeted to key areas of need. In particular, we need to ensure that we improve access to care at the early stages in an addicted person’s search for recovery. Access to primary and intervention levels of care can provide immediate benefits and help reduce the stress and costs on the system further down the line.

British Columbia bears the cost of addiction, no matter where it occurs or, more importantly, whether we choose to act or not. We want to be proud to live in a society that chooses to do something.

For the full policy paper, please see “Stepping Forward: Improving Addiction Care in BC”.