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Early success is shown in Calgary for virtual opioid program

A partnership between the Calgary police and Alberta Health Services has seen substantial uptake in the first six months of operation.

In December 2021, the province teamed up with the Calgary Police Service to intake detainees into the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program (VODP).

At Wednesday’s Calgary Police Commission meeting, attendees heard that more than 80 people that have gone through the Calgary police Arrest Processing Unit (APU) have participated in the program.

The goal of the VODP is to reduce overdose deaths from opioid usage. They do this by providing support to manage drug addictions.

“It’s a program that’s supported by the provincial government and really geared towards providing options for people who are suffering with addiction, as it applies to those individuals who are arrested and brought to arrest processing in northwest Calgary,” said Inspector Curtis Olson of the Calgary Police Service.

The VODP is a service delivered completely by virtual means. The program began in 2017 to support the provision of Opioid Agonist Programs (OAT) using methadone and buprenorphine/naloxone in Central Alberta.

Assessment and treatment are provided virtually in collaboration with existing health providers. These include labs, mental health supports and pharmacies. Clients may self-refer by toll-free number or can be referred from almost any community agency, healthcare organization or support service.

VODP expansion

In 2019, the VODP expanded from supporting central Alberta to serving clients anywhere in Alberta.

Olson said they’ve been working with the province and paramedics to deal with addiction issues.

“It’s a bit of a partnership between three entities, and making sure that partnership leads into other ones that are fighting for us, in so far, as addiction-focused healthcare,” said Olson.

A provincial grant provides funding for three full-time health staff for one year (April 2022 to March 2023), according to the report.

AHS said in a statement to LiveWire Calgary that their Opioid Agonist programs provide methadone, suboxone or sublocade initiation and maintenance treatment to people dependent on opioids. It helps them access the services needed to live healthy lives, they said.

“If an individual is admitted to corrections with an opioid use disorder, AHS can offer treatment through its Opioid Dependency Programs (ODP) while incarcerated,” their statement read.

LWC asked to interview someone from AHS about the VODP. We were told no one was available to speak directly with us.

Program Process

According to Olson, once an individual is processed, they’re assessed by a paramedic to determine their medical health. Through the process, if an opioid dependency is discovered, the VODP will provide a virtual voluntary and private physician consultation.

“[Suboxone] will be authorized to be provided from our medics, and that will essentially take those withdrawal symptoms down to a point where people can manage their addiction properly,” said Olson.

AHS said these addictions-management medications are safe and can be used long-term.

“When patients leave corrections, AHS provides discharge planning to ensure patients continue to have access to Opioid Dependency Programs, such as Virtual Opioid Dependency, or through other ODP clinics, whichever is most appropriate,” AHS wrote in their email response.

AHS also said patients can access OAT once they are assessed to meet the criteria of an Opiate Use Disorder by an authorized prescriber (physician, psychiatrist, nurse practitioner). 

Impact of the program

Since the program began in December of 2021, more than 80 detainees have accessed the program. According to CPS, this has dramatically assisted with withdrawal symptoms while in custody and has provided better re-integration for those released from custody.

The province said that the key to the program is accessibility. While there’s success shown through law enforcement intake, the virtual program opens the door to those who may be using at home.

“[The VODP has] been a huge success so far, not just in cell blocks with getting people, anyone who’s arrested for any reason, access to evidence-based medications, but it’s also been extremely successful in the community,” said Eric Engler, press secretary to Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Mike Ellis.

“Anybody, no matter where they are in Alberta, can call or visit VODP.CA and get same-day access on-demand, access to evidence-based opioid medication treatment.”

VODP can be accessed by anyone by calling 1-844-383-7688. The toll-free line is available seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. There is no waitlist for the program.