Time for Fraser Health to recognize the crisis in Chilliwack

If Chilliwack city councillors sound frustrated it’s because they’re hearing from their constituents

Chilliwack city council has had enough.

It’s called on Fraser Health to step up and “do its job” as the death toll from the opioid crises climbs and homeless numbers grow.

In a scathing rebuke, Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz and all six city councillors accused Fraser Health of failing to provide the services Chilliwack requires – services that are being provided to other municipalities where the crisis is less severe.

“We’ve fallen off the radar of Fraser Health,” said Gaetz at a council meeting last week.

She was responding to a staff report that recommended top Fraser Health and BC Housing executives be invited “to a meeting to discuss gaps in service and advocate for improvement.”

The private meeting would include Fraser Health president and CEO Michael Marchbank, Chief Medical Officer and vice-president Victoria Lee, BC Housing CEO, Shayne Ramsay, and BC Housing VP of Operations, Craig Crawford.

But a closed-door meeting wasn’t what Councillor Jason Lum wanted. In fact, if the meeting were private, he said he wouldn’t go. “I’ve said my piece,” he told his fellow councillors.

Instead, he called for a public meeting where the executives could hear the public’s fears and frustrations regarding this mounting crisis.

Council has certainly heard it. They’re being told daily to address an issue that is clearly outside the mandate of any municipality.

“This is a really big deal,” said Gaetz. “It’s a big deal for our community.”

And the numbers tell the story. Chilliwack is on track for more than twice the number of overdose deaths it had last year. It ranks third in the region for “overdose events” and second for the number of suspected cases showing up at the Chilliwack ER.

And yet, City Hall’s call for a dedicated outreach team has failed to move Fraser Health. In fact, it’s gone the other direction. After promising $70,000 to hire an outreach worker for needle collection and education alone, it is now contracting Griffin Security to collect needles three hours a day.

That’s unacceptable, council says. And it’s hard to argue with them.

What the city has asked for is a full “ICM team” like what both Langley and Maple Ridge have and what Abbotsford will soon get. The Intensive Case Management teams are made up of five full-time clinical support workers, one peer support worker, administrative support, after hours on-call support, a psychiatrist, a special addictions physician and a general physician. In addition, the teams are provided rent subsidies from BC Housing of $189,000 for Langley and $252,000 for Maple Ridge – money that is above and beyond what’s allocated to help individuals (70 in all) find housing.

What Chilliwack’s been given is a “virtual” ICM team, consisting of two part-time psychiatric nurses, two outreach health care workers, and the promise of two additional nurses.

“There are no subsidies attached to this team,” says the city staff report, “and when compared to an official team, we are short five clinical, educated staff members.”

Council is also asking Fraser Health to reopen the detox facility it closed in 2009, saying there are currently too many barriers to recovery.

“This is a plea for help,” said Gaetz.

But voicing a frustration shared by many in the community, councillor Ken Popove was more blunt. “We’ve had ‘Shame the johns,’” he said. “Let’s shame Fraser Health.”

Clearly Chilliwack city council has grown tired of asking nicely. It’s tired of watching the social and human toll mount, while telling its citizens that an effective response is beyond its mandate and outside its authority.

Fraser Health, said Councillor Sam Waddington, “Needs to step up and do their job.”

And I agree.