Every Yukon school will be equipped with a naloxone kit this year. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News)

Every Yukon school will be equipped with a naloxone kit this year. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News)

Yukon doctors and NDP call to expand opioid treatment options outside of Whitehorse

“This is a crisis of huge proportions.”

The Yukon Medical Association is urging the government to decriminalize simple possession and use of controlled substances and allow nurses to prescribe opioid therapies outside of Whitehorse in light of recent opioid overdose deaths.

“The Yukon is a unique environment with different substance use patterns and access to supports than other provinces and territories,” said the president of the association, Dr. Ryan Warshawski. “We need data specific to the Yukon population to create the optimal, safest model to deliver an enhanced treatment for those who use opioids.”

The move to support decriminalization was supported by Yukon doctors at the Yukon Medical Association’s annual meeting in November.

In a press release put out Feb. 8, the association also called for opioid agonist therapy to be made available widely in communities outside of Whitehorse. Currently, opioid agonist therapy is available at the Referred Care Clinic in Whitehorse.

In order to make treatment available in rural areas, the association said the government should both allow and support community nurses to dispense opioid agonist therapy medications out of Community Health Centres.

“This is a crisis of huge proportions, and it is disproportionately impacting First Nations people who make up a significant proportion of our population,” said Warshawski. “We must provide improved treatment for those with opioid use disorder by increasing access to medication and by integrating and enhancing the existing mental health and wellness services that are already available.”

The call to empower community nurses was echoed by the NDP. On Feb. 8 MLA Annie Blake described a “lack of political will at every turn” when it comes to expanding safe supply.

Blake called on the government to follow the model of British Columbia, which has allowed registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe treatment medications for opioid use disorders.

“Allowing registered nurses to prescribe safer supply would open the door to safer supply being accessible all over the territory. Training for nurses has already been developed in B.C. We know there are nurses who are interested in being involved. We know there are nurses in B.C. that would be ready and willing to come up for training and support. What are the Liberals waiting for?” said leader Kate White.

The NDP also criticized the government’s existing safe supply arrangement.

On Oct. 28, 2021 the government announced safe supply would be rolled out. Doctors can now prescribe hydromorphone, a clinical-grade opioid painkiller, in addition to suboxone or methadone treatments, out of the referred care clinic.

The clinic operates by referral, but drop-in services are also available in the Opioid Treatment Services Program.

At the time, Blake applauded the step forward, but raised concerns about rural access and awareness. She said on Feb. 8 that the government hasn’t done enough in the four months since then.

“Despite what the government is saying, safer supply is only available in theory,” said Blake.

In response, the government declined to make Health Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee available for an interview.

Instead, the cabinet office sent a written statement, explaining that discussions are ongoing about the best approach, including making opioid agonist therapy more widely available and decriminalization.

“We recognize we need to do more. We are currently planning a new territory-wide public awareness and education campaign, as one of the commitments in response to the Substance Use Health Emergency,” reads the statement. “We continue to work together with Yukon First Nations, RCMP, community leaders and other experts to help coordinate our approach to meet the needs of all Yukon communities.”

The government said the rollout of safe supply, and other responses, are happening in phases with cooperation from the community partners. Around 200 clients are currently accessing opioid treatment services at the referred care clinic, which accepts new patients at any time.

The clinic is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. at 210 Elliott St. Anyone interested in accessing services for themselves or someone they support can call 867-668-2552.

Meanwhile, discussion around the opioid crisis in Canada is a hot topic for the federal government. Yukon MP Brendan Hanley spoke to his colleagues on Feb. 8 in the House of Commons.

“In the Yukon, mothers and fathers are burying their children. Children are losing their parents before they are old enough to know what is going on,” he said. “These people should not be dying. Parents should not have to bury their children. Children should not have to become orphans because of overdose deaths.”

Hanley noted that eight people have died of overdoses in the territory in the last month, putting the Yukon at the most per capital deaths. He gave a particular note to the communities of Carcross, Mayo and Old Crow. He said the increase of support services and awareness has helped avoid an even greater number of deaths.

“The scope of the crisis exceeds our efforts to solve it. The opioid crisis requires intervention on the scale of the pandemic,” he said.

A private member’s bill has been proposed that would take a national-level look at policy options for the crisis, including decriminalization and supporting people toward a safe supply.

Contact Haley Ritchie at haley.ritchie@yukon-news.com