The NWT’s health minister described “enormous financial pressure” faced by the territory’s health authorities as MLAs spent Wednesday focusing on mental health and addictions.
In a marathon question-and-answer session on the topic, Julie Green said the territory’s health authorities had a combined deficit of more than $120 million.
Trying to turn that around while accommodating requests for a wide range of new or improved services is “very complex,” Green said, and an issue other Canadian provinces and territories share.
She was responding to Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly, who said the latest reporting from the health authorities showed many areas in which the NWT “still seems to be lagging behind.”
O’Reilly said reports painted a “rather bleak picture of substance abuse, alcohol abuse, family violence and child neglect.”
Green told him trying to correct the authorities’ deficit would not involve cuts but would be addressed by the recently launched Government Renewal initiative.
“There will be a dedicated group of three or four staff who will engage in looking at the detail of what we’re spending money on and what value we’re getting for that money,” the minister said, “and whether there are ways to reorganize ourselves to spend less money on those particular things.”
Meanwhile, Green said funding for Yellowknife’s Spruce Bough – the new name for the transitional housing facility inside what was the Arnica Inn – has been extended until at least the end of September this year.
That includes a managed alcohol program at the facility.
“We do have a mandate priority as a department to establish a managed alcohol program in the territory, and we are currently exploring options to make that a reality,” Green said, discussing whether that program would become a permanent fixture.
At the moment, the program – run by the Yellowknife Women’s Society – is considered temporary in nature, for the duration of the pandemic.
“We recognize the value of the program at the Spruce Bough. It manages two best practices together: the managed alcohol program and dealing with homelessness at the same time,” Green said.
“In the next six or seven months, the department will work with the Yellowknife Women’s Society to explore options for continuing this program once the pandemic ends.”
Asked by Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos whether the territory would invest in new aftercare facilities – for people requiring continuing support after receiving addictions treatment – Green said her government had no “specific plans” of that kind but a working group was examining the possibility.
“Aftercare is a priority of this government. The focus at this point is on people rather than facilities,” the minister said.
“Our goal is to reach as many people as possible and give them the widest variety of choices and the kind of support they need for their own mental wellness.”
Green said more than 300 people had so far responded to a survey that asks for feedback related to the NWT’s addictions and mental health services.
She said the results of that survey would help to inform future decisions about aftercare and whether or not the territory should once again open a treatment facility of its own.