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Hospital says 17 people assigned to addictions, counselling

CEO disagrees with some of W5 episode’s points, but agrees opioid problem needs urgent attention
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Sault Area Hospital stock-2
Sault Area Hospital file photo. Donna Hopper/SooToday

Ron Gagnon, Sault Area Hospital (SAH) president and CEO, says a CTV documentary showing the extent of opioid abuse in Sault Ste. Marie is not balanced in its approach.  

Steel Town Down: Overdose Crisis In The Soo, a partnership between W5 and Vice Canada, aired Saturday.

Many locals have said the documentary shames the Sault.

“It (opioid addiction) is a national issue, and it used Sault Ste. Marie to highlight that…was it a balanced piece as far as showing all the positives of the community? Absolutely not, but that wasn’t the intention of the piece either,” Gagnon said, speaking to SooToday Monday.

Gagnon feels investments in the war on opioid abuse need to be increased everywhere.

“I don’t think it’s just at Sault Area Hospital where investments need to be made, it’s in services community-wide.”

“There has been a long-standing under-investment in mental health and addictions, not just in Sault Ste. Marie but across this province and, I would say, likely across the country,” Gagnon said.

Gagnon said he did not agree with the position there is only one SAH staffer dealing with addictions issues.

“That is not an accurate depiction. I know we have 17 full time people in one way or another involved with addictions and counselling, Algoma Public Health does a lot of work around addictions and counselling as well, as does the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Group Health Centre.”

“There were many things I would not have agreed with in that W5 piece, but what I did agree with is this is a real issue that needs to be addressed,” Gagnon said.

“Is it a significant issue in this community that needs attention in an urgent manner? Absolutely.”

A key proposal SAH has to address mental health and addictions is an ask for a Level III Withdrawal Management facility in Sault Ste. Marie.

“What that would allow us to do is provide better care for people suffering from addictions and withdrawal and it would expand our capacity from 16 beds to 33,” Gagnon explained.

“It would allow us to develop a much-needed day-evening treatment program, provide harm reduction strategies, allow us to invest in transportation needs for those accessing that service, to expand our safe bed program and also co-locate some of our current mental health and addiction services that we operate at the hospital at one site, and also allow other partners in the community if they so choose to also locate there.”

SAH is requesting $6 million in new, ongoing annual funding to support such a facility and $11 million in one-time capital funding to construct a Level III Withdrawal Management building.

That proposal was put forward from SAH to the Northeast LHIN in November after nine to 12 months of development work by SAH staff and support from the community, including the city of Sault Ste. Marie, Gagnon said.

“When I went to the LHIN board in January it was very well received there as well…I have a high degree of confidence this will get the LHIN’s support, and we will work together to have the Ministry of Health approve this so we can move on this as quickly as possible.”

Gagnon said he is hopeful SAH’s proposal for the facility will be discussed at the Northeast LHIN’s March meeting.

“That (additional, annual) $6 million means more staff, some nurse practitioner coverage, because one of the big differences between our current Level I withdrawal management facility and a Level III facility which we’ve applied for is the ability to provide more comprehensive care,” Gagnon said.

“Right now, anybody who needs medical care for their withdrawal symptoms, or some other medication or treatment, they would have to come to the hospital.”

“Under this new facility they wouldn’t have to. It’s much more of a wrap around service for those needing the care. It’s way better, and this would only be the fourth of its kind in the province,” Gagnon said.

Gagnon plans to make a presentation regarding the SAH proposal to council at its next meeting (along with the need for long-term care and supportive housing for seniors in the community).

Gagnon added a new Rapid Access Addiction Medicine (RAAM) clinic, approved by the Ministry and the LHIN and set to be opened by the end of March, will allow people to self-refer and get the counselling they need.

The RAAM Clinic in the Algoma region will be located at the Algoma Treatment Centre and will provide outreach supports to Blind River, Thessalon, St. Joseph Island, Elliot Lake, Wawa and Hornepayne. 

Since the documentary aired Saturday, Sault Mayor Christian Provenzano has reconfirmed municipal leadership’s willingness to hear a presentation from SAH on opioid use, stating, through social media, “SAH will be at our next Council meeting outlining the project for Council (and the community) and we will commit to help SAH get the funding it needs.” 

“He (Provenzano) and I had talked about that before he even knew this W5 piece was coming,” Gagnon said. 

In the documentary, Desiree Beck, Drug Strategy Committee chair, called on the city to declare a state of opioid crisis for Sault Ste. Marie.

Gagnon said he would leave it to the mayor, councillors and staff to declare such a state of crisis, and what such a declaration would actually mean in the struggle against opioids.

Beck was not available for comment Monday.