Health Ministry to take over care of B.C. inmates

A private, for-profit company will no longer provide health care to inmates, after the B.C. government’s decision to transfer inmate care to the Health Ministry from the Public Safety Ministry.

Dean Purdy, union representative for B.C. Corrections officers, hopes the change will improve care for inmates with drug-addiction and mental-health issues, adding that provincial jails are becoming the default mental-health facility for many people.

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Effective Oct. 1, the Provincial Health Services Authority will take over health-care responsibilities from private contractor Chiron Health Services, which services Vancouver Island, Nanaimo and eight other correctional centres B.C.

Public Safety Minister Mike Morris said that treatment for inmates stops once they are released. Without continued care, it’s more likely the person will fall back into addiction or mental instability, which could lead the person to reoffend.

“We’re hoping that, by going to the provincial health authority and incorporating it into the process, we can bring these people into the system, we can diagnose them properly, we can put them into treatment and … they’ll be released with a treatment plan,” Morris said.

“They’ll still be part of the provincial health system, and it will be a seamless transition.”

The Public Safety Ministry transferred $25 million to the Health Ministry, which will dedicate an additional $10 million to deliver health care to the province’s 2,699 inmates.

The move comes after a 2016 review by B.C. Corrections, the Ministry of Health and the Provincial Health Services Authority.

Chiron has been providing health care in jails since 2015 with a staff of 350 including physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, dentists and mental-health professionals, the company said.

Dean Purdy, vice-president and chairman of the Corrections and Sheriff Service for the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, said correctional officers are more often having to deal with mental-health crises and overdoses.

He said about 30 per cent of B.C.’s prison population have mental-health issues. About 60 per cent have both addiction and mental-health issues.

Maximum-security facilities have dedicated living units for inmates with mental-health issues, but many are so overcrowded that some vulnerable inmates are housed with the general population.

“So many of those officers don’t have the same training to deal with inmates with mental-health issues,” Purdy said.

Jen Metcalfe, executive director of the West Coast Prison Justice Society, which provides legal aid for prisoners, welcomed the changes.

The society would like to see more staff dedicated to mental-health care in prisons and an end to solitary confinement, which can be a tool used to isolate prisoners in mental distress, she said.

“At the extreme end of things, we’ve had prisoners who are certified under the Mental Health Act waiting [in jails] for a bed at the forensic psychiatric hospital for days or weeks,” she said.

“They’re almost in constant isolation, they’re not getting anywhere near adequate psychiatric or psychological services. I think it’s a real crisis for prisoners with mental-health issues.”

The College of Family Physicians of Canada released a statement on Feb. 27 urging the federal government, provinces and territories to transfer inmate care from justice ministries to health ministries. Alberta and Nova Scotia have made the switch.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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