Healthcare news

Waiting times for heroin addiction treatment branded a disgrace

Opiate substitution programmes to help heroin users deal with addiction were first set up more than a decade ago
Andrew Madden

THE waiting list for a scheme in Belfast that treats people with heroin addiction has been branded an "absolute disgrace".

Figures obtained by The Irish News show that the Belfast health trust has 165 patients in its substitute prescribing programme, but there are 44 people on a waiting list that is 18 months long.

In the last financial year, it spent £1.2 million on drug and alcohol treatment and harm reduction services - the lowest of all five health trusts in the north.

Opiate substitution programmes, which help users tackle their addiction through replacement drugs, were set up more than a decade ago to tackle the increasing problem of addiction in Northern Ireland.

In recent years both hard illicit drugs, such as heroin, and prescription painkillers, such as Oxycodon, have become more frequently abused by drug users.

The northern trust currently has 277 patients in treatment and said it "does not operate a waiting list", as all those who are referred to the scheme begin treatment within six weeks.

The trust spent £2.9m in the last financial year on drug and alcohol treatment services.

Similarly, the south eastern and southern trusts have no waiting lists and treat 88 and 153 patients in their substitution programmes respectively.

The south eastern trust spends around £1.6m each year on services, while the southern trust spent £1.3m in the last financial year.

Patients in the western trust area are the only others outside Belfast who face waiting times for opiate substitution therapy, although not to the extent of the Belfast trust.

The western trust lists 78 people currently in treatment, with a three-month waiting list of 22 people.

Last month The Irish News reported that a group of Belfast families affected by opiate addiction had written a joint letter to the trust demanding action to tackle waiting times.

The trust said senior officials had met with families and offered an apology and "explained their position and what they have been doing to improve on waiting times".

Michael McDowell, of drug outreach group Belfast Experts By Experience, described the waiting list as an "absolute disgrace".

"These people have gone through hell just getting to a point where they actually ask for help," he said.

"To then be told they have to continue risking their lives taking drugs for over a year and a half is unacceptable. This inequitable treatment in comparison to other health trusts must stop before its too late for many of them.

"These people are on their knees desperate for help and are quite literally dying for treatment."

The Irish News contacted the Belfast trust for a comment, but it had not responded last night.

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