10/17/2012 10:02 EDT | Updated 12/17/2012 05:12 EST

Ontario to spend $15 million to expand treatment for narcotics addiction

TORONTO - Betty-Lou Kristy couldn't put into words the pain she felt watching her 25-year-old son Pete suffer from the ravages of opioid addiction.

As a recovering addict herself, she thought she'd be aware of everything he could get into, Kristy said. But she was wrong.

The Georgetown, Ont., mother said she had no idea how addictive prescription narcotics could be, or the kind of physical pain her son would suffer while in withdrawal.

Pete turned to alcohol and prescription drugs to escape his depression and severe anxiety, which stemmed from his childhood struggle with learning disabilities, she said.

He told her OxyContin "made him feel like Superman," Kristy said.

"The withdrawal made him horrendously ill, and soon he was taking the OxyContin just to keep from becoming violently sick. He was now trapped."

His death from an accidental overdose in 2001 is one of the reasons why Kristy urged the Ontario government to do more to help battle addiction to prescription narcotics.

On Wednesday, the governing Liberals announced they would spend $15 million to expand treatment for people addicted to those drugs.

Ontario has the "dubious distinction" of having the highest rate of prescription narcotic use in the country, said Health Minister Deb Matthews.

In fact, it's two to four times higher than any other province, she said. The number of Ontario babies who are born addicted to opioids is also higher than the national average.

Matthews said about $12 million will be spent on programs that include addiction treatment and counselling targeted at pregnant women and mothers programs to provide opioid substitution treatment.

It will also expand monitoring in emergency departments and public health units for early detection, as well as new telemedicine units to help remote communities access information on addiction.

Another $2 million is earmarked for First Nation communities, including $500,000 for urban aboriginals.

Narcotics abuse has reached "alarming proportions" in many First Nations communities, said Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kathleen Wynne.

She visited one reserve of 600 residents where 30 to 40 per cent were struggling with substance abuse, Wynne said.

In another community of 166 adults in northern Ontario, 85 per cent were addicted to opioids.

"How does a community function when that proportion of its members are struggling with substance abuse?" Wynne said.

While a fraction of the new money has been allocated to those communities, Wynne said aboriginals — living both on and off reserve — will also have access to other programs that will be expanded with the additional funding.

Ontario is already monitoring narcotic prescriptions to flag any possible abuses of the drugs, Matthews noted.

She said the additional funding is in response to recommendations made by a group of experts, including Kristy, who released their final report Monday.

It points out that dentists often prescribe opioids following dental surgery, even though they often don't know the patient's history of narcotic use or addiction.

Kristy said the doctors who treated her son were in the dark about the effects of OxyContin abuse.

There were periods where he was in such physical pain, he'd go to the hospital and be prescribed more opioids. He'd feel better and then was sick again within weeks, she said. Neither he nor his doctors considered that it might be from withdrawal. Instead, he got more drugs for the pain, she said.

The report was commissioned by the government after OxyContin was removed from the Canadian market last March.

The drug was meant to manage pain with a formula that released one dose of oxycodone over many hours. However, abusers could circumvent the timed-release feature by crushing the pills.

The manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, is now marketing OxyNeo as a replacement that is more difficult to tamper with.

But the report points out that some addicts are turning to riskier drugs, such as heroin, because they can't get OxyContin.

The patent for OxyContin expires Nov. 25 and provincial and territorial ministers have urged Ottawa to delay the approval of a generic form of the drug.

"My argument is that the social costs related to addiction of the very easily tampered OxyContin far outweigh the savings you would have because generics are cheaper than brands," Matthews said, adding that one study suggests it could cost five times more than the money saved.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq has said politicians don't decide what drugs are approved by Health Canada, but said she's willing to work with the provinces to reduce abuse of painkillers.