June 23, 2018

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Virgo report's vision requires political will

Editorial

There are times when optimism is best experienced with a healthy dose of caution.

The provincial government's release this week of the Virgo report, a 257-page document proposing a new strategy for Manitoba's mental-health and addictions services, is one of those times.

The report, prepared by Toronto-based Virgo Planning and Evaluation Consulting, is rightly described as the most exhaustive analysis applied to those crucial services in a very long time. Its numerous recommendations, if implemented by the Pallister government, would aggressively transform the manner in which Manitobans dealing with mental-health and addictions issues are treated.

Given the province's current focus on cost cutting, deficit reduction and finding a fiscal route to Premier Brian Pallister's campaign-promise holy grail — a one-point reduction in the provincial sales tax before the end of his government's first term — the "if" in the previous statement should probably be written in very large, bold-font capital letters.

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There are times when optimism is best experienced with a healthy dose of caution.

The provincial government's release this week of the Virgo report, a 257-page document proposing a new strategy for Manitoba's mental-health and addictions services, is one of those times.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen has only committed to implementing a few recommendations so far, but a spokesman for his office said they are all being considered and an implementation plan ‘is expected to be completed by fall.’</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen has only committed to implementing a few recommendations so far, but a spokesman for his office said they are all being considered and an implementation plan ‘is expected to be completed by fall.’

Calling for a "whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach" to overhauling mental-health and addictions service delivery, the final version of the Virgo report — which makes no mention of safe-injection sites for intravenous drug users — recommends wholesale program reviews and extensive province-wide plans.

The report, prepared by Toronto-based Virgo Planning and Evaluation Consulting, is rightly described as the most exhaustive analysis applied to those crucial services in a very long time. Its numerous recommendations, if implemented by the Pallister government, would aggressively transform the manner in which Manitobans dealing with mental-health and addictions issues are treated.

Given the province's current focus on cost cutting, deficit reduction and finding a fiscal route to Premier Brian Pallister's campaign-promise holy grail — a one-point reduction in the provincial sales tax before the end of his government's first term — the "if" in the previous statement should probably be written in very large, bold-font capital letters.

Calling for a "whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach" to overhauling mental-health and addictions service delivery, the final version of the Virgo report — which makes no mention of safe-injection sites for intravenous drug users — recommends wholesale program reviews and extensive province-wide plans.

One of the document's fundamental observations is that Manitoba — before implementing any of the report's strategic priorities — finds itself far behind the rest of the country in its funding of mental-health and addictions services.

Among the issues highlighted are at-risk children and youth, timely access to crisis response and psychological assessment, the impact of alcohol abuse on families and communities, and the specific challenges of service delivery to Indigenous people, which must "align with and support the larger healing process facilitated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls."

The province has already acted on one of the report's recommendations, having announced that it will establish five rapid access to addictions medicine (RAAM) clinics across Manitoba. The investment required to get the clinics up and running is modest — $1.2 million — but lasat week's announcement by Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen was hailed as a major step forward in eliminating the wait-time barriers that often derail addicts' attempts to seek treatment.

Moving forward with the rest of the report's recommendations will be a decidedly more costly endeavour. One of the document's fundamental observations is that Manitoba — before implementing any of the report's strategic priorities — finds itself far behind the rest of the country in its funding of mental-health and addictions services.

The province spends $506 million annually on substance abuse, addiction and mental-health issues, with $330 million coming from the health-care budget. That represents 5.1 per cent of health-related spending, well below the national benchmark of 7.2 per cent.

The Virgo report recommends that Manitoba increase targeted spending to between seven and nine per cent for the next three years in order to bridge the existing funding gap; earlier this week, Mr. Goertzen said he could not make such an immediate spending commitment. "But obviously we need to start moving to narrow that gap," he offered.

Representatives of various organizations dealing with addictions and mental-health services were effusive in their praise of the Virgo report's bold strategy, saying it accurately identified areas of concern and expressing excitement and relief at the "breath of fresh air" the new approach will bring to an overburdened system.

Their optimism will be justified when the province demonstrates the political will — in terms of both policy and funding commitments — to make the Virgo team's vision a reality. In the short term, however, they should attach a very cautious "IF" to those transformational aspirations.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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