An advocate for recovering heroin addicts has taken the first step in a potential class-action lawsuit against the Government of British Columbia.
“I want to help everybody in the Downtown Eastside who is on methadone and who has to pay this,” Laura Shaver told the Straight.
According to a notice of civil claim filed today (November 4) in the B.C. Supreme Court, Shaver entered into an agreement with the province that results in a monthly deduction from her social-assistance payments (commonly referred to as welfare).
The claim alleges Shaver entered that agreement while under duress, and that the nature of that agreement amounts to discrimination on the basis of a disability.
None of the allegations included in the lawsuit’s notice of claim have been proven in court. The province has yet to file a statement of defence.
The lawsuit pertains to a group of people who are both enrolled in the province’s methadone maintenance program (MMP) and who receive social assistance under the B.C. Employment and Assistance Act.
The claim explains that as one of those people, Shaver was asked to enter into a “fee agreement” with the Ministry of Social Development before her physician would prescribe her methadone, a form of an opioid-substitution therapy favoured in B.C. for the treatment of an addiction to heroin.
“Ms. Shaver signed the Fee Agreement unwillingly and under duress to gain access to necessary medical treatment,” the notice of claim reads.
That fee agreement preauthorizes the provincial government to deduct an amount from Shaver’s monthly social-assistance payments and provide that money to the private clinic where she is prescribed methadone.
“The Fee Agreement purports to allow the Province to deduct $18.34 from Ms. Shaver’s social-assistance payment per month despite the Province’s implicit understanding and awareness that Ms. Shaver has no resources to cover that cost and that going without methadone was not a practicable option for Ms. Shaver,” it continues.
The notice of claim states that because the fee agreement in question is only applied against methadone patients, the monthly deduction from Shaver’s social-assistance payments amount to a violation of Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It states that every citizen is equal before the law and ensured equal treatment regardless of any mental or physical disability.
The Straight has requested an interview with the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation. This article will be updated if a representative is made available.
Shaver, who is also a member of the B.C. Association of People on Methadone and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (Vandu), is represented in her legal challenge by Jason Gratl, a Vancouver-based lawyer.
“From a legal point of view, the signature on patients’ consent forms—the signature on the forms consenting to the payment—was obtained by means of duress,” he said.
Gratl conceded that to many people, $18.34 a month won’t sound like a lot of money. But to those on welfare, it can account for a noticeable fraction of their budgets.
“The ministry and the prescribing doctors are forcing people to choose between necessary medical treatment and food,” he argued.
In B.C., the maximum amount of monthly income assistance for a single employable person is $610, which includes a $375 shelter allowance .
Gratl said that he wants the legal challenge to result in the province refunding money to any patient enrolled in the methadone maintenance program who saw money deducted from their monthly social-assistance payments.
“There is no legal authority allowing for such deductions to occur,” he said. “Those services are medically necessary.”
The B.C. Supreme Court has yet to certify the claim as a class-action lawsuit. Gratl told the Straight he is confident it will receive that classification and advance in the near future.
According to a May 2014 B.C. government report, in 2012-13 there were 14,833 patients enrolled in the province’s methadone-maintenance treatment program.
That document states that to keep one patient in opiate substitution therapy, it costs B.C. approximately $3,268 per year.
If the government were to stop its monthly deductions from cheques like Shaver’s, that number would grow to approximately $3,488 per year.