Alberta creates groups to support mental health, addictions as part of healthcare ‘refocus’

Alberta saw a record high number of drug poisoning deaths in 2023 and now the government has announced a new organization that will take over mental health and addictions from AHS. Henna Saeed reports why some feel this will not solve the real problem.

Alberta is creating two new organizations it says will support mental health and addictions care in the province.

As part of the move to ‘refocus’ healthcare, the government previously announced it would be developing four new groups — acute care, continuing care, primary care, and mental health and addiction.

Premier Danielle Smith and Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Dan Williams were in Calgary Tuesday to provide details on the latter groups, which will be overseen by two new organizations.

Alberta’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction began the process of consolidating mental health and addiction services within AHS in August 2023 and finished in November 2023. The province says there were no disruptions to services during this time.

Recovery Alberta

The first, Recovery Alberta, will be responsible for the delivery of mental health and addictions services currently delivered by Alberta Health Services (AHS), according to the province.

This new organization is expected to be operational by summer 2024, and will operate with an annual budget of $1.13 billion provided by the province.

The government says that money currently supports AHS in its delivery of mental health and addiction services.

Recovery Alberta will be led by the current heads of AHS’s Addiction and Mental Health and Correctional Health Services team, which will include Kerry Bales, the current Chief Program Officer for Addiction and Mental Health and Correctional Health Services within AHS as CEO, and Dr. Nick Mitchell, the current Provincial Medical Director, Addiction and Mental Health and Correctional Health Services within AHS, as Provincial Medical Director.

Exact timelines are dependent on legislation that hasn’t been introduced yet, the province says, but the ministry is hoping to have the corporate structure of Recovery Alberta established by June 3.

Once it’s established staff and services would start under the banner of the new organization on July 1.


The second is the Canadian Centre of Recovery Excellence (CoRE) which the goverment explains will support the government in building recovery-oriented systems of care.

Alberta claims it has been leading the country in creating a system focused on recovery through evidence-based best practices from around the world.

It says that in five years, the province has removed user fees for treatment, increased publicly funded treatment and treatment capacity by 55 per cent.

The province also says it has built two recovery communities with plans to establish nine more.

According to the province, it has pioneered new best practices such as making evidence-based treatment medication available the same day with no cost and no waitlist through the Virtual Opiod Dependency Program.

Alberta says it plans to continue this work through CoRe. This will be done by researching best practices for recovery from around the world, analyzing data, and making recommendations based on evidence.

It will be established as a crown corporation through legislation introduced this spring.

CoRE will have $5 million in funding from the province, and is expected to be operations by this summer.

Former Manitoba Deputy Minister of Mental Health and Community Wellness, Kym Kaufmann, will be the CEO, supported by Dr. Nathaniel Day as Chief Scientific Officer.

Day is currently the Medical Director of Addiction and Mental Health with AHS.

Virtual engagement sessions

There will be no changes to terms and conditions of employment for AHS addiction and mental health workers transitioning to Recovery Alberta, the province says.

It adds there will be no changes to grants or contracts for service providers currently under agreement with AHS once Recovery Alberta is established.

The province is hosting virtual engagement sessions for frontline service workers and service providers to have their say ahead of the formal transition.

Minister Williams will be running four sessions — April 11 at 6:30 p.m., April 16 at 10 a.m., April 17 at 6:30 p.m., and April 22 at 10 a.m.

AHS staff or service providers can register via the government website and submit their questions online.

New recovery models miss the mark, critics say

NDP Critic for Mental Health and Addictions, Janet Eremenko, says the province’s announcement only focuses on one part of Alberta’s mental health and addictions crisis.

“Today’s announcement doesn’t stop the reality that drug poisoning deaths are climbing to record levels under Danielle Smith’s watch,” she said, in part. “The UCP is deeply underfunding mental health supports, because they refuse expert advice about what tools and treatment methods can help save lives, which should be everyone’s number one priority.

“The UCP’s plan focuses exclusively on addictions and offers nothing to address permanent supportive housing, treatment wait times and wraparound services.”

Eremenko also criticized the planned engagement sessions, saying there is no way to know the consultations will be meaningful.

“Frontline health-care workers know what works to save lives,” she said. “Four virtual sessions won’t ensure the Minister will truly engage with these staff, and we know the UCP has a history of hosting performative consultations without implementing any expert opinions.”

The critic also says many established organizations in the province have been working for decades on wraparound mental health and addictions services, and instead of putting funding toward those, the province is “moving forward with opaque, private contracts.”

Guy Felicella struggled with addiction for more than 30 years says the increase in lives lost to addiction, compared to previous years, says a lot about Alberta’s toxic drug supply.

He says increasing recovery treatments is great, but harm reduction is something that’s missing.

“Without a harm reduction safety net underneath, it really presents a lot of challenges,” he says. “Many people, after they complete treatment, go back to using substances.”

“That toxic drug supply is there waiting for them.”

Healthcare advocacy group Friends of Medicare agrees, claiming the United Conservative government has a history of repeatedly refusing to follow the best evidence and continued unwillingness to make treatment data available to Albertans.

Executive director Chris Gallaway also highlights the failure to mention 2023 as Alberta’s worst year ever for drug poisoning deaths. He continued to to say Smith used “cherry-picked” data in an attempt to “justify their ideologucal model.”

“The UCP government is still stubbornly claiming their approach as a success, while Albertans continue to die in unprecedented numbers from drug poisonings,” Gallaway said. “This is a heartbreaking crisis, made all the more frustrating by this government’s refusal to address it.”

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