by Steve Gabell, President, Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes Constituency Association, Green Party of Ontario
Canada is in an opioid crisis and we are failing people in Ontario when they most need help. In the three months from September to November 2023, there were 856 suspect-drug related deaths in Ontario. Staggeringly, this is an 81% increase from the same period four years ago. Each death leaves behind a ripple of pain and loss, every person who uses drugs is someone’s son or daughter.
Opioid agonist treatment with methadone or buprenorphine is the gold standard treatment for opioid use disorder. It reduces deaths from opioid overdoses, helps people to stabilize their lives and stop using illicit drugs, and brings them into the healthcare system. I’ve seen the benefits of opioid agonist treatment in my many years working as a community pharmacist.
The Ontario government covers the cost of some medicines for anyone who needs them. Flu shots and COVID shots are covered by the Province, regardless of any private insurance. Paxlovid for the treatment of COVID infections is covered by the Province, regardless of any private insurance. Mifegymiso for medical termination of pregnancy is covered by the Province, regardless of any private insurance. Naloxone kits for the treatment of opioid overdoses are covered by the Province, regardless of any private insurance. These are all sensible provisions and benefit us all.
Methadone and buprenorphine are not covered in the same way that paxlovid, mifegymiso, naloxone, or flu and COVID shots are. Methadone and buprenorphine are only covered for individuals who qualify for coverage under a provincial program such as Trillium, or who are on ODSP or Ontario Works. This creates unnecessary barriers for people who are seeking help for their opioid use disorder, many of whom would likely qualify for provincial coverage but who have not submitted claims for a variety of reasons – in one case I know of, a patient was released from a custodial sentence yet his OW claim had not been processed so they were faced with daily costs of $10 to $15 a day for their ongoing treatment. The risk of an opioid overdose is greatest when someone starts using again after a period of abstinence, and the cost of treating an overdose in an ER is far greater than the costs of providing methadone or buprenorphine.
Treatment for opioid use disorder should be provided as a universal benefit for anyone in Ontario who requires it. The net cost would be minimal as many patients would qualify under existing programs, and removing barriers to care could literally be lifesaving.