When the new provincial government announced 100 items it wanted to accomplish in its first 100 days in office last week, improving mental health services and reducing addictions were not listed on its agenda.
The omission raised red flags for the opposition, considering the province is grappling with high rates of methamphetamine use and long waits to access mental health and addictions services.
In an interview Thursday morning, Health Minister Cameron Friesen said Manitobans shouldn't fret.
"The 100-day plan is a snapshot of the government’s comprehensive plan, the early work that it will undertake. I don’t think anything should be read into the fact mental health and addictions is not explicitly mentioned," he told the Free Press.
"Manitobans know that making good investments in mental health and addictions is a priority for our government. Why? Because we have clearly stated that it is a priority for our government."
New financial statements released Thursday afternoon show the province didn't spend $2 million allocated for mental health and addictions care (of $215 million underspent in the health department in general). Finance Minister Scott Fielding argued the government spent $103 million more on health care than the year prior, although it appeared to be underspending due to new accounting measures.
"Manitobans know that making good investments in mental health and addictions is a priority for our government. Why? Because we have clearly stated that it is a priority for our government." – Health Minister Cameron Friesen
Earlier in the day, Friesen reiterated commitments the PC party made during the election campaign and plan to implement. They include developing a "modern anti-addictions curriculum" for students starting in Grade 3, creating a new Rapid Access to Addictions Medicine (RAAM) clinic in the Southern Health region and building an acute medical sobering facility. He couldn't say which, if any, of the pledges would be rolled out within the first 100 days.
"What I would tell Manitobans is stay tuned, but not for much longer," Friesen said.
The promise of a new sobering facility has caused some confusion among health-care and front-line workers, including Rick Lees, executive director of the Main Street Project.
He said Main Street already has a 20-cell sobering unit that could be expanded and he wondered whether the province's plan would spur duplication.
"What I do know is we don’t need two. Splitting the dollars is never really productive," Lees said.
In its first 100 days, Lees would like to see the province expand its continuum of care. That would mean providing more RAAM clinics, expanding detox and stabilization units at Main Street, and introducing longer, one-year drug treatment programs at several locations around the province. The programs should be harm-reduction focused and not abstinence-based, Lees pointed out, so that supports aren't revoked from people if they relapse.
"The crisis we’re dealing with is a mental health crisis. You know, the most difficult topic to talk about right? People find their way to alcohol abuse, opiate abuse and meth... basically through trauma or some other event." – Rick Lees, executive director of the Main Street Project
"The crisis we’re dealing with is a mental health crisis. You know, the most difficult topic to talk about right? People find their way to alcohol abuse, opiate abuse and meth ... basically through trauma or some other event," Lees said.
"We’re focusing too much on the symptom or the outcome, rather than focusing on why do we have this problem in the first place?"
Dr. Ginette Poulin, a specialist with the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, also highlighted the needs for more RAAM services, as well as more treatment beds for women.
Meantime, NDP health critic Bernadette Smith chided the government for not acting more swiftly.
"Manitoba’s meth crisis needs urgent, immediate action. Property crime and violent crime continue to rise while families struggle to get help for their loved ones," she said in a written statement.
"We had a plan to build long-term treatment beds, detox and a safe injection site within the first 100 days of office because we understand that families need help today. Too many lives are at risk for Brian Pallister to delay and ignore this crisis for another three years."
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.