MORE RESOURCES, NOT LESS: Lyndon Community chief executive Ed Zarnow says federal government funding cuts to drug and alcohol treatment programs “would have a dramatic effect on the ability of our organisation to continue”. Photo: STEVE GOSCH WHEN Daniel* arrived at the Lyndon House rehabilitation centre in October, he was homeless, addicted and feeling worthless.
His friends were substance abusers, his family had largely given up and he had been referred to rehab by a magistrate.
“He was very quiet when he came in,” remembers Lyndon program manager Cathy Wilson. “But then we discovered he had an amazing sense of humour and was very witty.”
The 27-year-old completed the three-month program and now lives in Sydney, attending TAFE. By the time he left Lyndon, he was done with ice and alcohol and “he knew he could have friends and engage with people without being under the influence”, Ms Wilson said.
It was another success story, at least for now.
The Lyndon Community is at the front line of drug and alcohol addiction in the Central West. Around 500 people a year come through the 12-bed, supervised detoxification clinic in Orange, while the rehab program accommodates up to 15 people at a time.
The detox clinic and Lyndon counselling services are 98 per cent commonwealth funded. Making it one of many organisations around the country vulnerable to expected budget cuts to drug and alcohol treatment programs.
“If commonwealth money were taken away, it would mean the detox program would close and our outreach program would also close,” chief executive Ed Zarnow said. “It would have a dramatic effect on the ability of our organisation to continue.”
In regional areas particularly, Australia is grappling with the scourge of ice (methamphetamine). It is not necessarily the most prevalent addiction – at Lyndon, alcohol still plays that role – but it is probably the most insidious and difficult to treat.
According to government figures, ice use more than doubled between 2010 and 2013, and the substance now accounts for 59 per cent of all detected illicit drug imports into Australia.
Against that backdrop, senior people in the sector say the federal government is at odds with itself on drugs – fretting loudly about the ice epidemic on one hand, while cutting funding for services on the other.
“Taking money out of an already stretched sector – even though the money may appear small has a magnifying effect,” Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association executive officer Sam Biondo said.
“It seems to be contradictory to the general perception that there’s a higher need for increased service delivery in the alcohol and drug space.”
This year’s federal budget cut $596.2 million from flexible health funds over the forward estimates – from a cumulative pool of $11.8 billion. The programs that will be affected, and by how much, will be finalised by the department in coming weeks. Two of the 16 funding streams, dealing with indigenous health and medical indemnity, have been quarantined.
It was also confirmed at a Senate estimates hearing earlier in June that drug and alcohol treatment will be hit by an additional, smaller round of cuts made in the 2014 budget.
The two streams of funding that deal with substance misuse will be cut by 13 per cent (or $8.2 million) in 2015-16; $7 million from prevention and $1.2 million from service delivery, assistant secretary Richard Bartlett said.
Larry Pierce runs the Network of Alcohol and Drug Agencies, the peak body for the non-government, specialist drug and alcohol sector in NSW. It represents 105 organisations that provide services such as detox, rehabilitation, counselling and pharmacotherapy. About half are predominantly reliant on government money, Mr Pierce says, with federal funding accounting for a third of their budgets.
He estimates as many as 20 agencies – mostly smaller programs with no connection to a bigger charity or church – could be under threat from the looming cuts.
“It’s potentially a huge impact on the capacity of these organisations to provide services directly to clients with drug problems, and to their families and loved ones and carers,” he says.
At any rate, the uncertainty plays havoc with staff, who have rent and bills to pay but no guarantee about their future. The Lyndon Community has lost half a dozen experienced staff members in the past 12 months for that reason, even though its funding has, so far, ultimately remained stable.
“That’s been a real issue for us,” Mr Zarnow said.
Turnover also harms the efficacy of treatment. The sector is keen to stress the importance of intimate, local connections between staff and clients – especially when working with Aboriginal people, who make up 40 per cent of Lyndon’s patients.
“It can take a good six months for a worker to build up a relationship with the community,” Mr Zarnow said. “When you lose that person, you’re starting all over again.”
Then there is the debate over competitive tendering, and whether it disadvantages small agencies. Lyndon recently hired external help to bolster its case for funds against rivals. But many boutique organisations lack the capacity to demonstrate their own worth, even though they are doing valuable work, Mr Pierce said.
“[They] don’t have the same resources as the Salvation Army to provide a crackerjack, data-gathering tender-writing process,” he said. “There is a problem there.”
Both Mr Pierce and Mr Zarnow make the point that treating methamphetamine addiction requires more resources, not less.
At Lyndon, ice has overtaken cannabis as the second-most common reason for seeking treatment. Compared to heroin users, people on ice can be erratic and volatile, and the rehabilitation process can be lengthier and more intensive.
“These are quite sick individuals when they come in for treatment, usually,” Mr Pierce said. “They’re not in good nick.”
Announcing the creation of a national ice taskforce under his own department in April, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the ice epidemic was “beyond anything that we have seen before”.
Then in May, Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash announced an $11 million “hard-hitting new advertising campaign” to target ice addiction. But the television commercial turned out to be an almost shot-for-shot remake of an ad that aired from 2007 to 2009.
Mr Pierce says regardless of the content, the strategy is off-kilter.
“TV ads are a waste. Go to the literature – there’s no evidence base for them,” he says. “A young person who’s decided to have a crack at smoking a bit of methamphetamine is not going to be scared off.”
That view is echoed by opposition health spokesman Stephen Jones. He welcomes the ice taskforce but says the funding cuts undermine the government’s rhetoric on ice.
“What they’ve done is they’ve cut the budget and said [to the health department] ‘now you go away and sort out how to make this work’,” he said. “That’s putting the cart before the horse.”
Mr Jones said representatives from various health sectors are lobbying the government to quarantine them from the hovering axe. He wants drug and alcohol services left alone, but said the bottom line is simple.
“The cuts should not occur.”
*Not his real name
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