Vancouver establishes groups to investigate methadone therapy abuses, SRO living standards
Two weeks after residents of two Downtown Eastside single-room occupancy hotels told city council about allegations of methadone maintenance therapy fraud, the city moved forward today (July 14) with a motion to investigate abuses of the program.
Council passed a motion introduced by Vision Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang calling for a working group with the province, The College of Physicians and Surgeons, The College of Pharmacists, health authorities, the B.C. Coroner’s Office, patient groups and other stakeholders to address alleged MMT abuses at the Wonder Rooms and Palace Hotel, and potential problems at other Downtown Eastside SROs.
Some residents of the two hotels alleged that they were threatened with eviction if they didn’t fill their methadone prescriptions at a particular pharmacy. One tenant of the Wonder Rooms hotel, who spoke anonymously, alleged that his methadone treatments have been diluted, and that he at one point was given someone else’s dose.
“This is really about patient care, and it’s about making sure that people who are being denied any medication actually get it,” Jang said.
Groups representing participants in the methadone maintenance therapy program asked council to ensure that they are included in the working group.
“Methadone users are in an extremely precarious position right now, and if this working group does not include a large group of methadone patients with equal voices to other people at the table, it could unwittingly do more harm than good,” said Vivienne Bessette, a community organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).
Jang said he wants to see the organizations involved.
“It’s all about patient care, and everyone’s included in this,” he said. “We want to make sure this moves fast.”
Jang noted he has also been contacted by Delta mayor and Metro Vancouver board chair Lois Jackson about participating in the working group, out of concern for similar alleged MMT problems in Delta.
“Even two weeks ago when we started to raise the issue of methadone abuses in the Downtown Eastside, the health ministry immediately launched within minutes an investigation, so people do take it seriously, because at the end of the day it’s about denying people their medication, and that’s just wrong,” he told the Straight.
Bessette said she will wait to see the outcome of the working group that is established, but she’s concerned there will only be “token involvement” of groups like VANDU.
“There’s a disconnect between a bunch of physicians and pharmacists and people sitting around a table talking about methadone, and what a person who’s taking methadone experiences,” she told the Straight. “And the only way to link that up is to have somebody who’s going to represent that group of people.”
During the same meeting, council also passed a motion introduced by Vision Vancouver councillor Tim Stevenson to create an SRO task force to “ensure an integrated enforcement approach” to improve living standards for SRO residents.
Carnegie Community Action Project coordinator Jean Swanson and other speakers asked council to ensure that SRO tenants and Downtown Eastside organizations that advocate for them are part of the group.
“I really appreciate the work that you’re doing for us, but we have to see people like us on this task force,” Allan Fowler, a resident of the Palace Hotel, told city council.
Fowler and other residents recently told council about alleged health and safety issues in their building, and some said they feared retribution for speaking out.
Richard Marquez, a volunteer with the Carnegie Community Action Project, said he’s worked with city staff to try and help residents in the two SROs to find housing. He estimated about eight people have recently moved out of the hotels, some of whom are staying at the First United homeless shelter.
“A lot of people are falling through the cracks,” he told the Straight.
Councillors agreed on an amendment to the original motion to specify that the Downtown Eastside community be “engaged” in the work of the task force.
“We want the community directly involved here, and we’ve got a much bigger problem to all work together to address, and there’s a really good start on it now, a lot of good collaboration, and we just want to ramp that up,” said Mayor Gregor Robertson.