09/24/2014 08:57 EDT | Updated 11/24/2014 05:59 EST

Social assistance study aims to reduce overdose rate

A new pilot project set to launch on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside will try distributing welfare and other social assistance cheques in smaller instalments to see if it will help the recipients better manage their money, stay healthier — and even stay alive.

The project comes out of the results of a B.C. study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy that found that people who already use intravenous drugs are more likely to overdose shortly after receiving their monthly cheque.

Specifically, the University of British Columbia and St. Paul's Hospital-affiliated authors of the paper Timing of income assistance payment and overdose patterns at a Canadian supervised injection facility found a twofold increase in the risk of overdose for those injecting within three days of getting their social assistance cheques relative to those injecting on other days.

"Our findings suggest that alternative models of income assistance cheque issuance may be warranted to decrease the morbidity associated with drug overdose and to ease the burden on health systems following cheque day," the authors wrote.

The conclusion comes as no surprise to Russ Maynard, the Coordinator for Harm Reduction at the Portland Hotel Society, who says the sudden influx of cash every month creates upheaval and turmoil in the community.

"There's more crime, there's a lot of disorderly conduct; arguments, fights, and people running out into the street in distress." he says.

"At Insite we brace for a lot more activity, the visits go up by 25 to 30 per cent, people are more chaotic inside as well," Maynard said.

Study to try out smaller, spaced payments 

The federally-funded study was launched to see what impact dividing the monthly cheque into smaller, spaced-out payments would have.

Run through the Urban Health Research Initiative at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, it is now looking volunteers who admit they use more drugs in the time shortly after their cheques are issued.

To participate, they will be signed up for accounts at Pigeon Park Savings, which is a Vancity branch operated in partnership with the Portland Hotel Society.

Lead researcher Lindsey Richardson said the participants' income assistance cheques will be deposited directly into their accounts on the last Wednesday of each month, and they will receive that cheque in instalments on different days throughout the month, based on the study group they are a part of.

"What we'll do is look at different ways of patterning that instalment system, to see if we can figure out what the most public health-promoting approach to social assistance disbursement could be," she said

The study is set to launch early next year, will track each participant for about six months, and hopes to follow around 300 people over the course of two years.

Richardson emphasized that everyone involved in the study would do so voluntarily, and that if anyone decides they want to drop out of the program, they are free to do so. She said anyone opting out would also provide researchers with important information on whether an instalment system is effective or not.

Maynard said the premise of the study sounds promising.

"It smooths out that income stream for people and probably makes it easier to plan and make sure there's food in the cupboards," he said.

- On mobile? Click here to read the report 'Timing of income assistance payment and overdose patterns at a Canadian supervised injection facility'