Drug-related mortality rates in B.C. linked to timing of welfare cheques

published on November 23, 2016 by Wendy Stueck in The Globe and Mail

The average number of people who died of drug overdoses in B.C. over the past five years was 40 per cent higher during weeks when social-assistance payments were distributed than during the rest of the month, according to a study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

Additionally, an estimated 77 avoidable deaths over the five-year period can be attributed to the timing of income-assistance cheques, the study concluded – underscoring a phenomenon that has led public-health advocates to push for the system to be changed.

That study, published in July, adds to a growing body of research that links the timing of social assistance payments to drug overdose deaths and other effects, including emergency room visits. And as service providers, police and hospitals brace for a potential surge in overdoses on what is commonly referred to as “welfare Wednesday,” researchers are investigating whether changing how social assistance is handed out could save lives.

“There is sort of a laundry list of harms that spike around cheque day,” says Lindsey Richardson, one of the authors of the July study and a research scientist with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

As a follow-up to that study, Dr. Richardson is now working on a project to help determine whether harms associated with “cheque day” – including police service calls, emergency room visits and overdose deaths – can be reduced by changing payment schedules to other days of the month or every two weeks.

“Rather than document more harm – we know that’s happening, we know it’s a problem – I wanted to see if we could do some research that supported a more solutions-oriented perspective,” Dr. Richardson said on Wednesday.

That study – the impact of Alternative Social Assistance disbursement of drug-related harm, or TASA – got under way last year. Participants are volunteers who are on social assistance and are split into groups: a control group that will get their cheques on government-issue days and two intervention groups that will receive their cheques on a different day or in portions.

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