The rise in the use of the drug ice has had a big impact on communities across Australia.
Politicians have not been reticent to seize on this drug to scare and alarm communities, and in the process they have often demonised and stigmatised those who use the drug, which is a form of methamphetamine.
However, there now appears to be a reluctance by the federal government to provide a guarantee that treatment services being offered to those who need help for methamphetamine use will continue.
The National Ice Action Strategy was launched in 2015. And while the bulk of the strategy's funding was directed towards law enforcement, $60 million was allocated to treatment services. This was critical funding that was directed to every state in Australia.
In just over three months, all funding for the government's National Ice Action Strategy will expire.
It seems inconceivable that a government would not continue to fund such a critical program, given the ongoing national concern regarding the drug, and the importance of stable and effective services to the health and wellbeing of families and communities across the country.
But alarmingly, the government has indicated to the sector that there is no certainty this funding will continue beyond June 30.
The uncertainty this is creating is already putting pressure on services suffering from the loss of staff. It is also making planning future services extremely problematic.
It is a burden to a workforce that has already come under extreme pressure during the pandemic.
Many of these workers have reported a significant rise in demand, as people attempted to cope with the stresses of the pandemic, including lockdowns and their profound impact on families, communities and business.
While demand for alcohol and other drug (AOD) treatment services increased, social distancing-inspired bed closures and a depleted workforce meant the services they could offer were often greatly reduced. Waiting lists and the cost of service delivery jumped as a result.
Yet instead of finally addressing the underfunding of this workforce, the government has left it in limbo by failing to provide any guarantees to continue to fund this $60 million program, which represents almost 50 per cent of the federal government's total funding for AOD treatment services.
It is why the Australian Alcohol and other Drugs Council, and all of the state and territory peak bodies, have written to Health Minister Greg Hunt to seek a public commitment to this funding prior to the March 29 budget.
The letter makes it clear that if the government cuts this funding, it will result in the closure of many counselling services, residential rehabilitation services, early intervention and prevention services and family and community network support services.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of front-line health workers and lauded their value to the community.
More recently, a spotlight has been shed on some "forgotten" health workers such as those in the aged care sector. We should also add to this list of "forgotten heroes" the front-line workers providing help for those who are seeking counselling or other services to better manage their alcohol and other drug use.
There is already a significant shortage of treatment services available across Australia, which is having a profound impact on individuals, families and communities.
The ongoing uncertainty is exhausting and wasteful, as organisations are forced to invest time in contingency planning. Every state and territory in Australia is feeling this pressure and struggling to cope in the absence of any clarity on this funding by the federal government.
As a sector, we are keen to work with the government to secure this funding as quickly as possible so that we can provide certainty to service providers who are having to juggle staff retention, recruitment and service planning ahead of the June deadline.
But reaffirming this critical funding for the National Ice Action Strategy should be a given. The federal budget should be an opportunity for the government to finally increase funding for AOD treatment services, which have been neglected and underfunded for many years.
Even modest additional funding could be used to update the Drug and Alcohol Services Planning Model (DASPM), and enable its progressive implementation over several years for the delivery of AOD services that truly reflect the needs of the community.
This would ensure investment in services is targeted and services delivered to people when they need them, where they need them and how they need them. It's what we expect from our other health services, and it is overdue for governments to show the same commitment to AOD services.
We can't continue to ignore our over-stretched services, and the workforce that works tirelessly to help people across our communities, and their families, who are often among our most vulnerable and overlooked.
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