Pathways protest

Peaceful protesters line outside the Pathways Addictions Resource Centre offices in Penticton on Sunday, March 28, 2021.

Just 10% of clients who received counselling at Pathways Addiction Resources Centre have registered to get the same help from Interior Health, Penticton city councillors learned Tuesday.

Pathways, which for decades provided counselling services to approximately 1,000 people per year from its Penticton office, was told by Interior Health in late February that its three contracts worth about $500,000 annually would be terminated May 31. Interior Health then brought the services in-house, but it’s unclear how many people are actually taking advantage of them now.

Interior Health official Carl Meadows, who appeared before council to deliver an update on the fight against the opioid crisis, said his team has only identified 100 former Pathways clients who have signed up for the new service.

“What happened to the other 900?” asked Mayor John Vassilaki.

“I can’t answer that,” replied Meadows, who later admitted he has never set foot inside the Pathways office.

But what Interior Health’s presentation did make clear is that addictions services are more critical than ever in Penticton, which is reeling from the opioid crisis.

Data presented to council suggested Penticton has the 10th-highest death rate for drug overdoses among all B.C. communities. The city’s current rate is 57 drug-related deaths per 100,000 people, compared to the B.C. average of 39 and the Interior Health average of 37.

The number of ambulance calls for suspected drug overdoses in Penticton is also currently off the charts at 1,003 per 100,000 people – about three times higher than the rate for Interior Health as a whole.

Dr. Karen Goodison told council illicit substances have always been present in the community, but they’ve never been so deadly, with 80% of all drugs tested showing the presence of fentanyl – a potent synthetic opioid – and 90% of overdose victims having “extreme” levels of fentanyl in their systems.

“We are looking at a whole new environment where we have this poisoned drug supply,” said Goodison, who noted the problem exists all over B.C. 

She said Interior Health is taking a multi-pronged approach to combating the opioid crisis by emphasizing harm reductions practices, such as distribution of clean needles and naloxone kits; offering more flexible counselling services; and trying to improve overall community health so people in crisis don’t turn to drugs in the first place.

Coun. James Miller suggested Interior Health put Pathways back in its arsenal.

“I know how much this means to the people of Penticton and I just plead with Interior Health, if anybody is listening… please reconsider and give Pathways a two-year reprieve to try to find some kind of alternative,” said Miller, also managing editor of the Penticton Herald.

It was Miller’s first meeting as councillor since winning the June 19 byelection to fill the seat vacated by Jake Kimberley, who resigned for health reasons.

Vassilaki kicked off the meeting with a short tribute to Kimberley, a three-time Penticton mayor and two-time city councillor.

“Jakes positive contributions towards Penticton’s growth and his leadership for the community spans decades,” said Vassilaki.

“We wish Jake continued success with his recovery.”