Friday, January 07, 2011

The ups and (major) downs of governance by whimsy

The provincial government made the very interesting choice over the Christmas season to buy a former air-force base near Prince George that’s been turned into an addiction treatment centre for men.
On the one hand, it’s great news. B.C. has never had anything quite like this centre before. Men can stay for up to a year in a village-style setting at the Baldy Hughes Therapeutic Community, with government footing the bill if people qualify for income assistance. That’s terrific.
On the other, it’s a striking reminder of how political and uneven the decision-making has become in B.C. Wonderful to have a new addiction resource available for British Columbians, but just a little unsettling when it happens in the same year that other addiction services are being cut across the province.
Welcome to life in a province with no social policy. Funding comes and goes based on whim and political influence, as far as I can tell. Even while the Baldy Hughes facility was launching for men with severe addictions, an effective and well-used provincial treatment centre for youth in Terrace was closing due to funding cuts. 
Political connections certainly seem to help when it comes to who’s up and who’s down. Baldy Hughes was started in late 2007 by former Liberal MLA Lorne Mayencourt. He’s no longer involved, but I have to think that being founded by a high-profile Liberal is a plus when looking for money.
But the source of funding is also a critical piece. A budget crisis among B.C.’s health authorities caused the cuts to addiction services last year. The $3 million to buy and operate Baldy Hughes is mostly coming from B.C. Housing and the Social Development Ministry.
Good news for Baldy Hughes. Less good for whatever provincial housing/welfare priorities got tossed as a result of money being routed to addiction services instead.
As for sustainability, nobody in the non-profit sector can count on that. Funding priorities can change in an instant when a province is making social policy up on the fly. That’s the real harm of political decision-making in a policy vacuum, particularly in a downturn: Anything can happen, and it rarely has anything to do with whether a service is effective and well-used.
Baldy Hughes executive director Marshall Smith says the therapeutic community has already had significant success. He’ll be releasing the data bearing that out later this month after a University of B.C. evaluation wraps up.
Seventy men are now staying at the centre, and soon there will be 90. Success is measured by ongoing sobriety, improved health and “positive citizenship,” says Smith.
“Are you employed? Are you housed? Have you stopped committing offences? Those are all measures of positive citizenship, which is unique to a therapeutic-community approach,” says Smith. “That’s a necessary thing if someone’s going to maintain their success.”
Smith has some expertise on that front. A former political aide to Ted Nebbeling, he was on the streets himself for more than three years, 2004-07, after a drug addiction took over his life. He sobered up and signed on with Mayencourt to develop the centre.
Unfortunately, the centre could turn out to be an amazing success and that still wouldn’t assure its funding. Many, many fine programs and services have folded in B.C. over the years - not because anyone was unhappy with their work, but simply because funders lost interest or found a new flavour. 
Baldy Hughes is getting $277,000 annually from B.C. Housing for operating expenses and another $610 a month from the Social Development Ministry for each resident on income assistance, up to $676,000 a year. (Those who don’t qualify for assistance pay $3,000 a month.)
It’s a pretty unusual funding envelope for addiction services. And it’s a risky one as well, because the largesse usually lasts only until somebody in the ministry decides down the line it’s time to get back to “core services.”
Addiction services should be funded just like any other kind of essential care. They’re too important to be managed in this random, poorly considered fashion.
Don’t get me wrong - I like what they’re trying to do at Baldy Hughes. The continuum of addiction services is desperately thin in B.C., and I like the idea of an abstinence-based village in the wilderness that keeps people away from their troubles long enough to forge new ways to cope.
But we’re talking about people’s lives here. We need a broad and consistent vision that holds steady long after the winds of political popularity blow over.

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