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Funding uncertainty threatens drug programs

At a time when Australian communities are demanding a response to methamphetamine use, UnitingCare ReGen’s CEO Laurence Alvis asks why the Federal Government is reducing the capacity of the Alcohol and Other Drug and Mental Health sectors to inform policy responses and develop targeted, evidence based programs. 

Melbourne, VIC, 8th April 2015: The past week has seen the announcement of a 12-month extension of Federal funding for alcohol and other drug treatment and mental health programs.  At first glance, this appears to be a good outcome: continuity of services pending the outcome of a service system review.  Dig a little deeper however, and serious problems soon emerge.

While the funding extension is preferable to the alternative, for service providers it is little better than a stay of execution.  The ongoing funding uncertainty surrounding these programs makes it incredibly difficult for services to recruit and retain experienced staff.  It will also make it difficult for services to maintain their programs at the desired level for the full 12 months, as they inevitably lose staff towards the end of the funding period to more secure positions.  Increasingly, these positions are found outside the alcohol and other drug sector as treatment services are forced to do more (and more) with less.

This is not only a product of the Abbott Government’s making: reliance on Federal program funding has been a harrowing experience for treatment providers under successive governments.  However, the current existential threat to many crucial services is a particular cause for concern, given the mounting impacts of Federal funding cuts to services for the most vulnerable and marginalised members of our communities.

Cutting health and community service funding may help the Government meet its fiscal objectives, but is an incredibly short-sighted approach.  Tightening the screws on communities that are already bearing a heavy burden can only intensify the symptoms of disadvantage: alcohol and other drug use, mental health, family violence and other crime.  In this context, reducing the capacity of health and legal services to support the most vulnerable is a recipe for disaster.

At a time when communities around Australia are crying out for action to counter the impacts of methamphetamine use, the Federal Government has only now announced an inquiry, that will focus primarily on law enforcement and offers little to those seeking answers on how to support affected communities.  Other than generic promises to take action, to date, the Government has shown little leadership in this area or interest in developing evidence-based responses to individual, family and community needs.

At a time when the expertise of researchers, service providers and policy specialists is most needed to support timely and effective initiatives, the Federal Government is defunding key peak bodies and restricting the capacity of established treatment services to develop new approaches.

Too much is being left to individual communities, without adequate resources or sufficient access to alcohol and other drug sector expertise.  The gradual stifling of sector capacity to advocate for evidence-based approaches has contributed to a public debate where hyperbole and misinformation dominate and considered opinion gains little traction.

When those of us who work in the field are still learning about the most effective ways to respond to methamphetamine dependence, it is little wonder that affected communities (and the broader public) feel confused and willing to consider proposals that, while well intentioned, are unsupported by evidence and have the potential to do more harm than good.  None of us have all the answers, but we can all contribute to a solution, if given the opportunity.

A commitment from Federal Government to genuine leadership on this issue (as we have seen from successive Victorian Governments through the Parliamentary Inquiry and subsequent ‘Ice Action Plan’), accompanied by appropriate resources for affected communities and the services that support them and inform public policy, is long overdue.  Without this commitment, along with a willingness to consider the broader, systemic factors affecting the health and wellbeing of our communities, the prospect of any reduction in harms associated with methamphetamines (or the drugs that will follow them) remains limited.

Today’s announcement of a national methamphetamine task-force is welcome, but the true measure of the Government’s leadership will be whether the action it takes is evidence-based and appropriately resourced.

The task-force’s first report is not due until mid-year. The Government still has time to change its approach, but it needs to act soon.

Our communities deserve better.

Disclaimer: UnitingCare ReGen programs are amongst those provided with the abovementioned 12-month funding extension.  However, the great majority of ReGen’s services are funded by the Victorian Government. 

Background about ReGen:  UnitingCare ReGen is the lead alcohol and other drugs treatment and education agency of UnitingCare Victoria & Tasmania. We have been promoting health and reducing alcohol and other drug related harm since 1970.  We support social justice and sustainable change at an individual, community and systemic level.


 

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