Alberta first province to eliminate fees for addiction recovery programs


After 28 years sober, he lost his house, all his savings and sold all the equipment he owned to pay for alcohol.

Then, Lloydminster senior Bryan Robinson was staring down a $1,800 bill for a 45-day addiction recovery program.

His son came to his aid, paying the tab for his time at the Thorpe Recovery Centre.

"I knew I had to get well," he said in an interview on Friday. "I knew I had to get better."

Now in a long-term program at Our House Addiction Recovery Centre in west Edmonton, he's been paying $1,200 a month from his old age security and Canadian Pension Plan benefits.

But this month and beyond, his bill will be $0.

That's due to a major shift in the way the Alberta government is funding addictions recovery. For the first time, the province has eliminated fees for people to attend the 72 licensed, publicly funded treatment centres in the province.

The $40 daily cost for room and board will be covered for everyone who does not have health insurance plans that would cover the cost.

Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Jason Luan, said it's been a goal of his team since the United Conservative Party took office.

"I think we are contributing to a transformational change in the sector," he said. "I wouldn't mind to say our major step forward, this milestone, will signal another best practice that we hope will lead the country with our numbers, with our evidence."

Luan said families shouldn't have to sell a vehicle or refinance a mortgage to pay for addictions treatment programs. The cost was a huge hurdle, and one he wanted to eliminate.

Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jason Luan says eliminating user fees for residential addiction recovery programs is good value for money. (CBC)

He said it's also good economics. A 2018 report estimated substance use cost Alberta $5.5 billion in 2014 to pay for health services, police, court and corrections costs and in lost productivity. Every dollar invested in prevention can save another $12 down the road, he said.

His staff calculate the cost at about $8.2 million a year. About $5 million of that will be diverted from the department of Community and Social Services. People who qualified for income support or Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) already had their recovery treatment costs covered by the government.

Although about 2,700 people in those programs entered recovery each year, many people whose lives were in crisis didn't qualify for the help. Seniors, post-secondary students and the working poor were left out.

The point of the policy change is to divert people to recovery programs before they lose everything.

Expanding service key part of plan

The loss isn't limited to the person snared by addiction. Lerena Greig helps their families. Executive director of Parents Empowering Parents Society, Greig has seen families spend their life savings to pay for addiction treatment programs.

Sometimes, if a person relapses, they may go through detox and treatment two, three or four times.

She's watched parents' mental and physical health deteriorate while they carry the stress. Some have remortgaged their homes to pay. She's seen the financial and emotional pressure lead to divorces.

She said she's ecstatic the financial barrier has been removed. That's because the largest barrier to recovery is often the willingness of the person to enter treatment at all.

"With addiction, it's kind of like there's a moment of clarity," she said. "And if you don't jump on that moment of clarity when that person decides they want help, that moment is gone."

With financial barriers gone, will there be enough treatment beds to take patients in their moments of clarity?

The government has been working on that. Luan has pledged to add 4,000 treatment "spaces" over four years, bringing the total to more than 12,000 across Alberta. A "space" is a bed and staffing to treat patients for one year, but most programs are far shorter.

It's also unclear how successful recovery programs are in the long-term — the government hopes to begin tracking that.

The funding changes could also bring more stability to recovery centres, which are either non-profit or run by Alberta Health Services.

Steven Archambault, director of community engagement and fund development for Simon House Recovery Centre in Calgary, said the 84-bed facility is heavily dependent on community donations.

Rather than receiving funding per patient, centres will now bid on three-year contracts determined by their services and capacity. That could make funding more predictable and allow them to expand their offerings, Archambault said.

He said the changes are exciting.

"Ideally, in the long run, we hope that the recognition will bring a much better opportunity of lowering the stigma that is attached to addiction throughout the country."

Back in Edmonton, Robinson says saving up his pension earnings is a good first step to preparing for his eventual independence — whatever it looks like.

"Eventually, sooner or later, I've got to start, right? And it takes money to start. Or I'll be back to square one again."

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