‘Working Toward Recovery’: Alberta Sets Up New Agencies to Tackle Addictions, Mental Health

‘Working Toward Recovery’: Alberta Sets Up New Agencies to Tackle Addictions, Mental Health
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith answers questions after making an announcement at a news conference in Calgary on Feb. 1, 2024. (The Canadian Press/Todd Korol)
Doug Lett
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has announced the creation of a provincial agency called Recovery Alberta to handle mental health and addictions.

With a budget of $1.13 billion, the agency will be separate from Alberta Health Services (AHS), which until now has handled most health-related programs in Alberta.

The province is also setting up another agency—the Canadian Centre of Recovery Excellence (CoRE) to investigate best practices in addictions and mental health treatment.

Premier Smith told a news conference on April 2 that Recovery Alberta, as the name suggests, will focus on helping people recover from drug addictions and mental health issues. Having an agency that focuses on those issues should lead to better treatment, she said.

“The creation of Recovery Alberta means you will have access to a better and more effective health care system” as part of an ongoing reorganization of AHS, she said.

The Alberta model contrasts with the “safe supply” approach to addictions being used in neighbouring British Columbia. Safe supply refers to the practice of giving drugs on a prescription basis to addicts to ensure what they are taking is safe and not contaminated.

“We’re taking a different approach, and we’re working toward recovery,” Premier Smith told reporters.

“British Columbia’s deaths are happening, on a per capita basis, higher than ours,” she said. “But if safe supply worked that wouldn’t be the case, right? If safe supply worked, then you would expect them to have lower rates than we do. So that’s what we need to research and study.”

Alberta Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Dan Williams pointed to the fact that some of the drugs handed out under B.C.’s safe supply program are ending up on the black market.

In March, RCMP in Prince George announced they had seized thousands of pills in two separate investigations that appear to have been diverted from B.C.’s safe supply drug program.

Mr. Williams said safe supply runs the risk of increasing the overall supply of addictive drugs in Canada.

“Tens of millions of pills are distributed, unwitnessed and to what proportion diverted we don’t know,” said Mr. Williams.

Dr. Nathaniel Day, who is currently Medical Director of Addiction and Mental Health with AHS, said a recent study showed “the actual total volume of pills being prescribed in British Columbia from all sources has more than doubled since safe supply was introduced…so you can talk about a small number of people (using safe supply) but we know that access to any addictive drug increases the risk of addiction in a population.”

Addictions are taking a growing toll in Alberta, as in many other provinces. While overdose deaths went down in 2022, they rose again in 2023. Alberta saw over 1,700 overdose deaths in the first 11 months of 2023, its highest rate ever recorded.

Dr. Day said bringing those numbers down is going to be a challenge, but that there are hopeful signs that the province’s emphasis on recovery is beginning to have an effect.

“The fact of the matter is that we are seeing some ups and downs. And there are other jurisdictions that are seeing ups and ups only,” said Dr. Day. “And so we’re hopeful that as our program development continues, and as we continue to learn from what’s working and what isn’t working, that we are we are hopeful that in time we will see more downs and less ups,” he said.

He pointed to Alberta’s Virtual Opioid Treatment Program, which offers publicly funded medication and treatment remotely and can connect an addict with help in a single day.

The province has been adding more treatment beds and over the last five years has removed user fees from treatment while increasing publicly funded treatment capacity by 55 per cent, including addictions treatment for those in police cells.

“For example, providing addiction care in police cells, is something that happens in Alberta and we’re not aware that that happens in anywhere else in the world,” said Dr. Day.

“There are other jurisdictions that are looking to us to say…what are you learning from that?”

He added the focus is on trying to learn what works and what doesn’t.

While Recovery Alberta will focus on providing treatment, CoRE will look at research from around the world to find the best methods of treatment.

“Core’s mandate will be to conduct research and program evaluations, provide advice to government on international best practices, and develop standards of practice in mental health and addiction,” said Ms. Smith, adding its work could be across the country.

“It’s no longer enough to simply introduce well intentioned programs or services,” said Kym Kaufmann, who is the incoming CEO of CoRE. “Instead we need to rigorously evaluate what works and what does not work so we can double down on the successes,” she told reporters.

In a news release, the province said it hopes to have Recovery Alberta up and running by July 1 and that people receiving care should not see any disruption to service.