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First Nations warn an emergency about to become a catastrophe

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OxyContin is a powerful and potentially addictive painkiller. As has been noted in a number of other news reports, abuse of this drug is a Canada-wide problem.

A crisis is declared

In November of 2009, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), which represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario (a population of about 45,000 people) declared a "Prescription Drug Abuse State of Emergency."

This resolution notes that prescription drug abuse, particularly of opioids like OxyContin, is an escalating crisis and calls upon both levels of government to immediately enhance community-based programming to deal with it.

By September of 2011, policing and addictions were stretched to the breaking point in many NAN communities and the response from provincial and federal governments is described by NAN as "minimal."

Another First Nations crisis ignored.

Responsibility for health-care services

In Canada, most people access health-care services through provincial programs and infrastructure. Status Indians and "recognized" Inuit are a federal responsibility when it comes to health care.

Health Canada provides First Nations and Inuit with "a limited range of medically necessary health-related goods and services to which these individuals are not entitled through other plans and programs."

Under this Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) program, certain prescription and over-the-counter drugs are covered (paid for) if the patient does not have private insurance. Only drugs on the NIHB Drug Benefits List are eligible for this coverage.

No oxycodones for First Nations/Inuit

On February 15 this year, Health Canada announced that all "long-acting oxycodones" such as OxyContin have been removed from the NIHB Drug Benefit List. Only those currently being prescribed OxyContin will be switched to OxyNEO (via a grandfathering clause), but no new prescriptions will be written outside of exceptional and case-by-case situations.

Thus legal sources of OxyContin will become unavailable to all Status Indians and recognized Inuit across Canada through the NIHB. Those who legitimately need this medication will not be able to receive it in the future.

Still available to non-Natives

In most of the rest of the country, OxyContin or its replacement, OxyNEO (a supposedly more difficult drug to "tamper with"), will continue to be available to those who need it. There are some provincial exceptions.

PEI has recently instituted similar measures as those taken by the NIHB, pending a review of treatment with oxycodones compared to other drugs. Newfoundland heavily restricts access to OxyContin, but allows at least 15 other oxycodone drugs under its public drug plan.

More worrisome is the example of Manitoba, where access to OxyContin was restricted last year, reserved for patients with specific ailments only. Fears of this leading to a surge in crime was quickly confirmed as desperate people with untreated OxyContin addictions turned to armed robbery. This in a urban centre with considerably more addictions resources than isolated First Nations or Inuit communities.

A dam about to burst

The situation in many Nishnawbe Aski Nation communities has been bad enough to warrant the declaration of a State of Emergency. Now the NAN is warning of even worse:

"Without OxyContin available, individuals will experience withdrawal. Symptoms may range in severity from stomach upset, muscle and bone pain, anxiety, restlessness, increased heart rate and blood pressure to depression and suicidal ideation.

'In the absence of any regular treatment, a public health catastrophe is imminent, as there are thousands of addicted individuals with rapidly shrinking supplies -- likely leading to massive increases in black market prices, use of other drugs, needle use/sharing, and crime,' said Dr. Benedikt Fischer, a senior scientist at the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health."

Health Canada acknowledges that most people in NAN communities are not getting the drug through legal prescriptions funded by the government. How withdrawing OxyContin from the Drug Benefit List will in any way address abuse is unclear.

Despite a stated willingness by Health Canada to fund drugs used to treat opioid dependence such as methadone (which is not available in most remote communities) and suboxone (but only on a case-by-case basis), no mention is made of what addictions programming will be put into place to deal with the worsening situation.

In short, the resources are not there to help deal with what is about to be a flood of people with addictions going through serious withdrawal in these communities.

From emergency to catastrophe

Action needs to be taken now to ensure that adequate resources are provided to communities struggling with such severe addictions problems and lack of treatment programs. It is unacceptable that an emergency gone unheeded should be allowed to turn into a catastrophe, yet again.

A more detailed version of this article was published on the author's blog, âpihtawikosisân.

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