Yukon Party hazy on help for alcoholics

It's been nearly nine months since Dr. Bruce Beaton and Chief James Allen released a detailed report on how to help the territory's hardcore alcoholics.

It’s been nearly nine months since Dr. Bruce Beaton and Chief James Allen released a detailed report on how to help the territory’s hardcore alcoholics.

This week, the Yukon Party indicated they would use bits and pieces of the report. But it’s far from clear whether they’d act on all recommendations, as both the Liberals and NDP have already promised.

The governing party has committed to building a new detoxification centre, at a cost of $5 million. Patients who complete a 28-day program would find more after-care services available at the new facility.

And the Yukon Party would build a “community recovery clinic,” to be staffed by addictions and mental health experts.

The clinic is supposed to help ease the burden on Whitehorse General Hospital’s emergency room, which is periodically overwhelmed by the repeated visits of a small number of alcoholics.

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But it’s unclear what services the clinic would offer, and where it would be located.

This clinic sounds similar to the sobering centre proposed by the Beaton-Allen report as a place for alcoholics to dry out. But this can’t be confirmed.

The Yukon Party didn’t invite the Yukon News to its news conference on Wednesday. And the governing party never responded to several simple questions asked by this newspaper.

Beaton is similarly in the dark about what the government intends to do. And he’s one of Premier Darrell Pasloski’s golfing buddies.

“Mr. Pasloski hasn’t talked to me about my report since he became premier,” he said.

“We talked ever-so-briefly about getting together to talk about the report, but never did, so I said to him, ‘Darrell, you’re way more busy than I am, so you let me know when you have time, and I’ll make a point of getting together with you.’

“That hasn’t happened.”

Beaton’s heartened to hear that the Yukon Party plans to do something. But he had hoped they would have accomplished more by now.

The same goes for Rao Tadepelli, president of the Yukon Medical Association. He puts a sobering centre at the top of his wish list. He wishes the territory’s politicians could “rise above politics” and act on the Beaton-Allen plan.

So far, the governing party’s main move to help alcoholics has been to build a better drunk tank at the new jail.

Like a sobering centre, this place offers a place for alcoholics to sleep it off, under medical supervision. But its location is all wrong, said Beaton.

“It’s a good first step. But it’s a long way from being the first step in a life-changing, therapeutic environment that brings people to deal with their problems.”

Not all alcoholics want to change their lives. But, for those who do, it’s important to have services on hand to help them, said Beaton.

“But if they’re in jail, they’re rarely going to say, ‘Gee, I’m in a safe, secure environment, which is caring and really wants to help me change my life, and I’m going to do it now.’”

For Beaton, it’s essential that the sobering centre is located downtown. That’s where the bars are. And that’s where the homeless live.

He’d like to see it attached to the new detoxification centre. Ideally, a homeless shelter would also be under the same roof, so that residents could easily seek professional help.

Vancouver and Winnipeg both have similar setups.

It’s possible that the Yukon Party plans to add its new clinic to an expanded Whitehorse General Hospital. Beaton also cautions against this.

The distance from downtown to the hospital is “a hefty little hike at 40 below,” he said.

“If these things came to be, in different parts of the town, that would be good. But it would be an opportunity missed if they weren’t tied together.”

Or it’s possible that the recovery clinic is something else entirely.

The Yukon Party recently announced it would open a thrice-a-week medical clinic that would target the homeless. Pasloski could be merely repeating this announcement.

One year ago, there was a palpable sense of public urgency over providing better services to Yukon’s homeless alcoholics. Not so much anymore.

When the territory announced the new drunk tank in January, Stuart Whitley, deputy minister of Health, told reporters that plans to build a sobering centre would be unveiled “in the next couple of months.” That never happened.

“I’m encouraged this is bringing this issue back,” said Beaton. “I think if we didn’t have an election, it would have been totally forgotten, and I’m truly disappointed about that.”

PAYING OFF PHYSICIANS

The Yukon Party is promising to woo more family doctors to the territory with cash incentives, at a cost of several million dollars annually.

This money is “always welcome,” said Rao Tadepalli, president of the Yukon Medical Association. “That’s something that will help us attract physicians to the North.”

But he suspects Whitehorse’s shortage of family doctors will be resolved shortly. “It’s a temporary issue,” said Tadepalli.

The cancellation of a program earlier this year sent foreign-trained doctors packing. But updated legislation recently overturned this obstacle, allowing doctors to work in the Yukon provided they’re licensed in another Canadian jurisdiction.

As a result, Tadepalli knows of several doctors now moving to the territory. And he’s hopeful a fair number of medical students completing a residency in the Yukon will stay.

The Yukon Party is also promising to expand Whitehorse General Hospital’s emergency room. No dollar figure is included with the announcement.

But, during the Yukon Hospital Corporation’s annual meeting in September of last year, chair Craig Tuton said the corporation planned to borrow between $40 to 50 million to finance such an expansion.

A shortage of space at the hospital is currently a big concern, said Tadepalli.

The hospital’s reached capacity at times. As a result, new patients have been sent to Watson Lake.

That may be fine if you’re from Watson Lake, said Tadepalli. “But for somebody who’s from Whitehorse … the majority of the population is here, and would like their medical care to be here.”

Controversially, under the Yukon Party’s leadership, the hospital corporation has borrowed $67 million to build new hospitals in Watson Lake and Dawson City and a new medical residence in Whitehorse.

The Yukon Party’s also pledging to expand Whitehorse General Hospital’s imaging facility, to make room for a new MRI machine.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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