Health Minister Terry Lake is dismissing NDP accusations that the B.C. government allowed the number of youth addiction beds to plummet in Fraser Health over the past three years as fatal drug overdoses began to spike.
The NDP released government records obtained through freedom of information showing a 25 per cent drop in youth substance use beds between 2013 and March of 2016. The drop was worst in Fraser, where the number of available youth addiction beds fell more than 50 per cent over the same period, from 22 to 10 beds.
NDP mental health critic Sue Hammell said the province should have realized overdose deaths were climbing in those years and taken swifter action, rather than waiting until the eve of the next provincial election to try to deliver on a 2013 campaign promise to add 500 addiction beds by 2017.
"They knew the numbers were increasing – that's why they promised an increased number of beds," Hammell said.
As of the end of August, 488 B.C. residents had died from fatal illicit drug overdoses and the death toll could top 700 by the end of the year.
"This is the equivalent of two 747s crashing at the airport," Hammell said. "It's a huge number of lives being lost to addiction and overdoses and we're cutting the services to youth. It doesn't make sense."
But Lake said Fraser lost 11 beds because a youth substance use facility in Keremeos jointly used by Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health had to be closed due to issues with the operator.
Those 22 beds will come back on stream when the Keremeos facility reopens in 2017, he said, along with other planned increases, including a new 10-bed youth stabilization unit at Surrey Memorial Hospital.
Lake said by the end of 2017, B.C. will have 102 mental health beds and 195 substance use beds for young people up to age 25.
By the end of 2017, Fraser Health will have 42 substance use beds for young people, he said, up from 22 in 2012.
Lake said the overdose death crisis was not apparent a couple of years ago and only was declared a public health emergency this April.
He also rejected suggestions the B.C. government has not acted decisively, pointing to its task force and its efforts to make naloxone much more widely available to reverse opioid overdoses.
"We have saved hundreds of lives," Lake said. "That seems to be missing in this discussion. Yes we have 400 people who have died. But if we hadn't acted quickly and done what we had done, we would have lost hundreds more."
There have been 172 drug overdose deaths as of the end of August in the Fraser region.
Across B.C., there have been six overdose deaths so far this year of victims aged 10 to 18, and another 121 aged 19 to 29.