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B.C. premier's office directed health authority statement on Richmond drug overdose prevention site

Richmond city councillor Kash Heed chalks up the premier's intervention on the matter to politicization of a health issue that ought to be treated equally across all communities.
The B.C. Premier's Office, headed by Premier David Eby, directed Vancouver Coastal Health on public messaging following protests against a potential drug overdose prevention site in Richmond.

The day after protesters took to Richmond City Hall to oppose council’s motion to explore an overdose prevention site nearby the hospital, the premier’s office directed Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) to issue a statement to media and the public that such a site would not be moving forward.

The intervention came a week after Medical Health Officer Meena Dawar expressed hope that health and community facilities in the city could move ahead with what’s called “eOPS,” or “episodic overdose prevention service” — a form of overdose prevention site.

Richmond Coun. Kash Heed says Premier David Eby’s direct intervention in the matter further supports his assertion the BC NDP had interfered in the process and done an “about face” on overdose prevention services for the community.

“It’s absolute interference in due process based on what I’ve read,” said Heed of emails obtained by Glacier Media through freedom of information requests, showing communication to and from Dawar on the matter.

“The decision before the intervention of the premier’s office was based on science, based on the doctors, based on the interpretation of the data; all of that was based on their expertise until it was politicized and it became a different set of circumstances,” said Heed, asking: “Have we politicized science now when it comes to saving people's lives? Come on now.”

On Feb. 5, Heed tabled a motion at committee level for city staff to “administer a practicability analysis to gauge the potential benefits and challenges of implementing a drug consumption site within the Richmond General Hospital Precinct.”

Having passed, the motion was tabled at a full council meeting Feb. 12. Protesters then descended on city hall that night. Meanwhile, the BC Conservative Party issued a statement opposing the site and BC United members — Richmond North Centre MLA Teresa Wat, election candidate Wendy Yuan and Ministry of Mental Health, Addiction and Recovery critic Elenore Sturko — joined the protesters.

“It’s all about getting the votes from a particular base of people and creating a moral panic,” said Heed.

An election is scheduled for Oct. 19 and the BC NDP has hold of three seats in Richmond it did not possess prior to the last election.

The protest led to council extending the meeting to a second day — the evening of Feb. 13.

The next morning, on Feb. 13, Preet Grewal, communications director for the ministry liaised between the health authority and premier’s office to draft a statement for the health authority stating: “At this time we don’t believe a stand-alone overdose prevention site is the best option to support people struggling with addictions in Richmond and will not be moving forward with one in this specific case.”

Grewal told VCH staff member Ari Indyk “the Premier’s Office has directed us to direct VCH to issue a statement to quell some of the misinformation.”

Prior to the premier’s intervention, VCH staff discussed the types of services being contemplated in Richmond (and not just the hospital).

Dawar wrote on Feb. 6 to staff that the committee motion “is a great opportunity to open the door for eOPS in Richmond.”

Deputy Chief Medical Health Officer Mark Lysyshyn wrote on Feb. 9, in response to concerns raised by the Richmond Hospital Foundation, “that we are not recommending establishing an SCS open to the public within the hospital. Instead, we will be recommending offering overdose prevention services at community sites that already serve the population at risk of overdose.”

An “SCS” is a supervised consumption site that requires federal exemptions and is more “onerous” to establish, with greater wraparound services, according to health officials. The next type is an overdose prevention site (OPS), which may involve a service contractor to conduct peer-to-peer supervision of drug consumption and mental health treatment outreach. Heed favours the former.

Finally, there is “eOPS,” which refers to, according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, “provider-witnessed consumption of substances for the purpose of preventing or responding to drug poisoning delivered outside of established sites (e.g. [Supervised Consumption Site] and [Overdose Prevention Site]) in any setting where drug poisoning prevention may be needed, including inpatient units, emergency departments, long-term care facilities, clinics, community-based settings, housing, emergency shelters, outreach, etc.”

eOPS “is not intended to establish a continuous fixed-site overdose prevention services” and is considered an “on-demand” service “that allows clients to use substances on site with staff monitoring.”

Heed said he takes exception to the premier’s office directing the health authority only after the protest and before council had voted 7-2 in favour on the evening of Feb. 13.

“Before we even embarked on the second day, the premier’s office directs Vancouver Coastal Health Authority to issue a statement …before the vote,” said Heed.

Following the protest and council vote, VCH further stated a permanent site was not contemplated because not enough people have died in Richmond from overdoses and, furthermore, died in places where a site is perceived to have been useful.

On average, between 2019 and 2023, about three people died outside each year of an opioid overdose in Richmond, according to VCH and coroner data. In 2023, 27 people died of an opioid overdose in the city (this was previously reported as 26 deaths). More than eight in 10 deaths are attributable to fentanyl.

The health authority stated such decisions also come down to "resources."

As an example of costs, one mobile overdose prevention site nearby Ridge Meadows Hospital in Maple Ridge costs $400,000 to operate annually, according to Fraser Health.

A month after the protest at city hall, the auditor general of B.C. issued a report March 19 stating that while the provincial government had failed to set minimum standards in its harm reduction services, OPS/SCS had helped to reduce deaths and injuries among people who use drugs.

The auditor, however, found that “municipal resistance” to establishing such sites was a significant barrier — an assertion that comes with irony, said Heed.

“The resistance (in Richmond) came from a minority of vocal people spreading so much misinformation,” said Heed.

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