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Alberta pilots new overdose app after lobbying from former UCP staffers

Three of the lobbyists were staffers for Jason Kenney.

Earlier this week, Jason Luan, Alberta’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, announced that the province was rolling out a new app, which they claimed would help prevent overdose deaths.

The idea behind Digital Overdose Response System is that a user launches the app and sets a 2-minute timer. Once the timer goes off, the user can extend the session or end it. If the user doesn’t select either option, STARS Air Ambulance will phone the user and contact EMS, if needed.

The app will also provide information on local supports and services, but only those that are recovery-based.

Testing will begin in Calgary this summer. After the testing phase, other communities will come online sometime next year.

The government plans to spend $325,000 just on the months-long testing phase alone, but provided no information on final operational costs, assuming the app even gets implemented.

Less than a year ago, Alberta Health Services had planned to launch a 3-year phone-based virtual overdose response pilot project.

The project was a result of collaboration between the City of Calgary, Telus, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, people with lived experience of drug use, and experts in mental health, health care, and addictions.

The project was also part of a phase II clinical trial with ethical approval and peer-reviewed funding.

Just hours before the launch, Luan told AHS that he was “pausing” the project. At the time, he said,

Considering the use of illicit narcotics while on the phone with a peer support worker as an appropriate medical intervention is frankly dangerous.

“UCP halts phone-based supervised consumption project only hours before launch”, Calgary Herald, 18 June 2020.

Apparently an app with no support worker of any kind and without any clinical vigour is less dangerous.

Alberta saw 1,281 drug-related deaths in 2020, the highest recorded in any of the last 5 years. That’s over 300 more than the second-highest year—2018 saw 957 deaths.

Actually, all but the first 3 months of 2020 saw record numbers of deaths compared to the previous 4 years. July 2020 alone saw nearly twice as many deaths as any of the other 4 Julys.

The fact that this app won’t be ready until sometime in 2022 means that it’ll do very little to reduce the number of drug-related deaths in 2021. And even when it is fully operational, there’s little evidence that it’ll have widespread adoption.

The company developing the app is Calgary-based Aware360, who was awarded the contract through a sole-source arrangement: the government never put out a request for proposals for the project.

That sole-source contract came after months of lobbying from Ottawa-based Wellington Advocacy, who Aware360 had hired to lobby the provincial government on their behalf.

According to the Alberta Lobbyist Registry, Wellington Advocacy filed a “Consultant Lobbyist Registration – Initial Return” on behalf of Aware360 in August 2020, just 1.5 months after the UCP cancelled the phone pilot project.

According to the initial return, filed by Wellington CEO Nick Koolsbergen, Aware360 had hired Wellington on 27 July 2020.

At the time, Koolsbergen indicated that Weillington would be lobbying Alberta Health, Alberta Labour and Immigration, the executive council (basically, the cabinet), Jason Kenney’s office, and Alberta Municipal Affairs.

He’d originally claimed the company would be lobbying the government for “Aware360’s contact tracing/social distance workplace application” through “informal communications, meetings, presentations, telephone calls, written communication”.

This was despite the fact that the provincial government had already been running their own contact tracing app for 2 months.

Koolsbergen had listed himself in the initial return as 1 of 2 people from Wellington who’d be involved in the lobbying. The other was Brad Tennant, Wellington’s vice-president of Alberta.

The contract between Aware360 and Wellington was supposed to be for a month, according to the initial return, but the Koolsbergen filed a “Notice of Change” on 3 September 2020, which extended their contract for another month.

He filled another notice of change in October extending the contract a second time. Two weeks later, he filed a third notice of change, which listed Peter Csillag, Wellington’s director of public affairs, as a third member of Wellington’s lobbying team.

This notice of change also added Service Alberta and Alberta Jobs, Economy and Innovation to the groups Wellington intended to lobby.

Four days after that, Koolsbergen filed yet another notice of change—his third in October—this time adding Matt de Jong to the lobbying team. de Jong was listed as a “consultant”.

According to a media release that was published on Wellington’s website 2 days after Koolsbergen filed his most recent notice of change, the company had just barely hired Csillag and de Jong.

Both individuals have ties to the UCP party.

The media release claimed that Csillag was Kenney’s director of issues management when he was leader of the official opposition in Alberta. He was also a senior advisor to Kenney when he was a federal minister during Harper’s administration.

It also reported that DeJong worked for the UCP caucus at the Alberta Legislature. His LinkedIn profile said he was their legislative coordinator. Speaking of his LinkedIn profile, it also said that he was still working as a legislative coordinator for the UCP the same month the above notice of change was filed and the media release was published.

Since we’re on the point of Wellington’s connection to the UCP, the media release also stated that Koolsbergen was once Kenney’s chief of staff and his campaign director and that Tennant was a former executive director of the UCP and a member of Kenney’s leadership election teams.

Lori Sigurdson, the NDP critic for mental health and addictions, brought up in yesterday’s Question Period, the relationship between Kenney and Koolsbergen, asking the following questions:

Given that Aware360, the company that got this massive government contract without having to bid for it is a client of Nick Koolsbergen, the premier’s former chief of staff . . . why was the minister of health indifferent so indifferent to the hundreds of Albertans dying of preventable overdoses until the premier’s best buddy came looking for some easy money?

…given that the minister and his staff have refused to answer exactly how much this giveaway to the premier’s friends will taxpayers, to the minister, does it sit right with your moral compass to help the premier’s buddies to get rich off Albertans’ misery . . . ?

In response, Kenney said, in part:

I’ve never heard of this company. I have no idea what she’s talking about. She just alleged that I am somehow involved in a corrupt relationship with an organization I have never heard about and a contract I have zero awareness over.

At the beginning of November, Koolsbergen filed yet another notice of change, indicating that Wellington and Aware360 had extended their contract for yet one more month. It also added “Alberta Legislative Assembly” to the list of groups the company intended to lobby.

A month later, he filed his 6th notice of change, extending his lobbying contract with Aware360 until the end of 2020.

Just two weeks after that, Koolsbergen filed a 7th notice of change, which added Alberta Justice and Solicitor General to the list of groups they were going to lobby.

Koolsbergen filed his final notice of change at the end of 2020, this time indicating a termination date of 1 March 2021 for Wellington’s lobbyist registration and extending their contract with Aware360 for yet another month.

It seems odd that after 6 months of Wellington advocating on Aware360’s behalf for the government to adopt their social distancing/contract tracing app—despite the province already having such an app—Aware360 would be awarded a sole-source contract for a different app altogether.

Aware360 does not have the Digital Overdose Response System app listed on their website among their product offering.

By Kim Siever

I live in Lethbridge with my spouse and 4 of our 6 children. I’m a writer, focusing on political news, social issues, and the occasional poem. My politics are radically left.

I’m also dichotomally Mormon. And I’m a functional vegetarian: I have a blog post about that somewhere around here. My pronouns are he/him, and I’m queer.

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