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Up to 200 people waiting months for addiction treatment, minister says

Health Minister Bruce Fitch wouldn't say if the PC caucus supported the legislation unanimously. (Pierre Fournier/CBC - image credit)
Health Minister Bruce Fitch wouldn't say if the PC caucus supported the legislation unanimously. (Pierre Fournier/CBC - image credit)

New Brunswick's health minister says up to 200 people are facing waits of three to eight months for addiction treatment — even as the government prepares legislation that would force even more people into rehabilitation programs against their will.

Bruce Fitch said during a budget estimates debate at the legislature that it's too early to look at how much money will be spent in the coming year putting the new bill into effect.

"We haven't even had first reading" of the Compassionate Intervention Act, Fitch said.

"So to say 'is there money in the budget' for a bill that may or may not pass is just premature. … No one knows specifically what is included in that legislation. We haven't had the debate. We haven't had any amendments that might occur."

The bill, expected to be introduced in May, would give authorities the power to force people living on the streets with severe addiction into treatment against their will.

Legal experts question whether that would violate constitutional guarantees against arbitrary detention.

More candidates running for mayor or city council seats across northeastern Ontario are talking about poverty and addiction than ever before.
More candidates running for mayor or city council seats across northeastern Ontario are talking about poverty and addiction than ever before.

Premier Blaine Higgs would not rule out invoking the Constitution's notwithstanding clause in the Compassionate Intervention Act, a move that would allow it to circumvent provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The legislation could force people into rehabilitation programs against their will. (Erik White/CBC )

Public Safety Minister Kris Austin said the bill will set out a process that authorities will have to follow to force someone into treatment, with "medical professionals" having a role.

Even so, Premier Blaine Higgs would not rule out invoking the Constitution's notwithstanding clause in the bill, a move that would allow it to circumvent provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Opposition MLAs raised that issue Wednesday during a committee session examining the health department's budget for the coming year.

They also pointed to the long wait list and apparent lack of sufficient treatment capacity for people voluntarily seeking addiction treatment now.

"I want to know how the Department of Health and the minister expects to onboard more people who might not want the help but need it, for sure, when we have already have 200 people who want the help?" said Liberal health critic Rob McKee.

Horizon Health's Ridgewood Addiction Services now has 16 rehabilitation beds, while the Centre for Hope and Harmony in Campbellton, run by Vitalité Health Network, has 18.

Opposition Leader Rob McKee said the government has a history of not consulting with Indigenous groups and shale gas development.
Opposition Leader Rob McKee said the government has a history of not consulting with Indigenous groups and shale gas development.

Opposition Leader Rob McKee says the wait times raise questions about the wisdom of trying to force more people into treatment. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Fitch explained that the wait list of about 200 people may include some people on wait lists twice, for both facilities.

He said his budget for 2024-25 includes $240,000 to start planning a new facility, promised in the throne speech last fall, with 50 additional beds.

"We certainly want to increase the access to programs and care. It is a priority. It's an important priority," he said.

But McKee said the wait times raise questions about the wisdom of trying to force more people into treatment, questioning whether they'll get to jump the line ahead of those already seeking a spot.

"When people want to get the help that they need, they should be able to immediately get a placement," he said.

"Three months down the road, they may have gotten worse. They may have lost their life if we don't treat it at the earliest opportunity, when they want to get the help they need."

Ridgewood Addiction Services provides a range of services, including in-patient detoxification from alcohol and drugs.
Ridgewood Addiction Services provides a range of services, including in-patient detoxification from alcohol and drugs.

Ridgewood Addiction Services in Saint John provides a range of services, including in-patient detoxification from alcohol and drugs. It has 16 rehab beds. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

Green MLA Megan Mitton said forcing people into treatment "doesn't make sense, given the resources that exist."

Fitch told reporters that his comments about the bill possibly not passing — despite a PC government majority — were a response to what he called McKee's "showmanship" during the committee meeting.

He said the questions and criticisms were "a bit of an overstep" and accused the opposition of trying to sensationalize the legislation, which he said will be introduced in May by Sherry Wilson, the minister responsible for addictions and mental health.

Wilson is scheduled to appear before the committee later this week.

Fitch wouldn't say if the PC caucus supported the legislation unanimously.

"I haven't taken a poll," he said. "I'd rather keep some of those caucus discussions confidential."