Second Reading — Cognate Debate
Resumed from 15 August.
[Speeches and comments from various members]
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [3.37 pm]: I stand because I want to make a few comments about this budget. I have made my budget contribution, when I spoke at length about the investment needed in the 10-year mental health and alcohol and drugs services plan. Of course, since giving that speech, I have become aware of a particular cut within the alcohol and other drugs services that I have been talking about during the winter recess. But it is still ongoing, so I want to talk about it today and draw it to members’ attention. It is one of those cuts that has been made that I put in the category of the few select issues that have been brought to this government’s attention. I really hope there is reconsideration of the decision to make this particular cut, and that there can be a change in the thinking around it. As my colleague Hon Diane Evers so rightly said, I think it is good when people make decisions to uncut things because it has been figured out that it is better not to. I think it is a sign of wisdom to do that—to listen and not to dig in and ignore what people are saying. I am talking specifically about the cuts to the Meth Helpline that were announced—$154 000 has been cut from the WA Meth Helpline. That came into effect at the beginning of July. People may not be aware of the history of the Meth Helpline. It was established about two years ago with about $200 000 in funding, which included funding for additional staffing of the alcohol and drug support service lines, which incorporated the Meth Helpline, and promotion of the service to encourage people to call the Meth Helpline. It was an initiative of the previous government as part of the overall strategy to try to deal with meth within this state. It was a good strategy. As I will demonstrate, it has also proven to be quite an important component of the battle to try to address meth within this state.
I have been contacted by a number of constituents who have very real concerns about the immediate impact of those cuts on the community. Within the scheme of a massive budget, we are talking about a small amount of money for a very heavy investment. As I always do when I talk about these things, I acknowledge that we have a very tight set of books and that decisions about cuts have to be made. I cannot deny that difficult decisions have to be made when it comes to funding priorities, but I do not think that cutting funding for very important early intervention meth services is particularly wise thinking. As I said, I believe that the original allocation of funds for the service included a provision for promoting the helpline. Members may remember the ads a couple of years ago on TV that talked about the effects of meth and encouraged people to ring the dedicated helpline that had been set up. I understand why, in such a difficult fiscal environment, that component of the funding may be temporarily put on hold, but cutting staffing levels to the helpline just does not make sense. The staffing cuts we are talking about would reduce it from 75 shifts a week to 65 shifts a week. That will significantly reduce the capacity of that helpline. My concern is that making cuts to early intervention services that are designed to help people navigate the system is short-sighted. I think it will cost us more in the long run, both economically and, importantly, socially. I think it will prove to be a quite false economy.
It is my strong view that these cuts are symptomatic of a worrying trend—that is, a divergence from the directions outlined in the very well considered, comprehensive and widely endorsed “Western Australian Mental Health, Alcohol and Other Drug Services Plan 2015–2025”. They are also at odds with the interim findings of the Sustainable Health Review and the recently released Methamphetamine Action Plan Taskforce community consultation report, which basically summarised some of the key issues we are facing in trying to address the meth crisis. There are a couple of comments that I particularly want to point out. The report acknowledged that, in many cases, when help is sought, it is difficult to know where to go. When people did locate services—these are people with whom the task force consulted—there were long waiting times to get treatment. People in the community are struggling at the moment to have their issues dealt with urgently. The task force heard that the system is complex and difficult to navigate and often not able to respond when people are in crisis. These issues are often compounded for people in regional WA. There are some other points that I will speak about in a moment.
We already know that we are dealing with a complex system that needs as many pathways as possible so that people can easily access services, and particularly at those early crisis points. There is no question that meth is having a huge impact on Western Australians and that the government quite clearly considers it to be a priority issue, just as the previous government did, and as it should. It is a huge problem that needs to be addressed. We know that much money, time and effort has been invested in working out evidence-based approaches to reducing the impact of the harms of these drugs on the community, yet it seems that when it comes to implementing these measures, there is not enough commitment from this government to put its money where its mouth is to rebalance the system. That is what we need to do here. The latest wastewater drug monitoring program report showed that WA continues to have the highest regional levels of methamphetamine consumption in the country. We know that cutting back on the helpline will disproportionately impact people living in the regions. People in the regions do not have the same options to access face-to-face support as their metropolitan counterparts. There is already a shortage at a metro level, so the system is already under strain. It was found that a helpline was an effective way of assisting with the tyranny of distance.
We know that the helpline has been working. The Meth Helpline has turned out to be a very well used service—it was struggling to meet demand even before the recent round of cuts. In fact, I have heard reports and seen figures that an estimated 4 000 calls to the helpline went unanswered last year, so it was already struggling to meet demand. Members may ask who is accessing this helpline. The answer is that a very broad range of people within the community are accessing it. It is estimated that about 50 per cent of the people who have been ringing the helpline have been users and 50 per cent have been friends, family members and loved ones of users, who have been distressed. We are talking about people who are working. We are talking about fly in, fly out workers; tradies; small business owners; and professionals. Meth is an insidious drug that has an effect right across our community. It is highly addictive. It is very easy to get, unfortunately. People try it and are caught within the web of meth very quickly. Of the 50 per cent of people who were ringing the helpline who were not users, I am saddened to say that some were children of parents who were caught up in meth addiction. They had heard about the meth line and were ringing to get that very early support. There were also parents and other loved ones ringing the helpline. Significantly, another group that was regularly calling the helpline was our health professionals—our GPs. They did not know where to go to access services for patients they were dealing with. Other specific services, such as the Start Court for example, were accessing the Meth Helpline in order to get referral pathways. There were calls from emergency departments and grandcarers. This has been a very critical service acting as a first point of contact for a whole range of people in the community. They were able to quickly google and find out that there is a Meth Helpline. It was really well marketed and easy to find. They could immediately get on to people on the other end of the phone.
I will say something about the people on the other end of the phone. These people are qualified and trained alcohol and other drug counsellors. Often they are social workers as well. They are highly trained. They are also trained in co-occurring AOD mental health issues. They are a very good first port of call for people to contact. A key objective of the 10-year mental health, alcohol and other drug plan is to make sure that we support system navigation, collaboration and integration so that people are supported to get to the right place at the right time. The helpline has been doing this. It has been playing a very key role in referring children of users, other family members, medical professionals and, of course, the users themselves onto other services. The reduction in funding of 10 shifts a week will significantly decrease the number of people being supported or linked into an appropriate service in a timely manner. It alarms me that this is going to be happening at the point at which people need it the most. As one of my frustrated constituents wrote, according to my notes —
Why is it that the minute something is working, it is taken away?
If anything, we need more hours of the service, not fewer.
We also know that having access to help when a person is ready to seek it is a key determinant in the success of interventions. This fact was explicitly recognised again in the report released recently by the government. Page 6 of the report states —
There is a small window between deciding to get help and when help needs to be provided, before dependent users return to using methamphetamine and retract from seeking help. Support needs to be made available as soon as the decision to seek help is made.
We know that that is the key to success in ensuring that people are able to finally take that first critical, painful step in trying to address meth addiction. It is a small window. If people do not succeed in the first instance, do not think that people will necessarily keep trying. People will give up. We do not want that. We do not want that for them, for their families or for the community. We need to grab that window and make sure that it is as easy as possible, once someone wants help, to grab them and give them as much assistance as we possibly can.
Another constituent whose family has accessed the service and found it to be incredibly valuable highlighted the importance of having a 24-hour service. For example, the volunteers at the Drug Court, or, as I mentioned before, the Start Court, recommend that those who have been put on a curfew access the helpline if they become agitated during the curfew hours. If they are not able to access the court when it is needed, there is a real risk that they will likely go out to try to find more drugs.
The community alcohol and other drug services do not provide around-the-clock assistance, so it is not as simple as referring people who cannot access the helpline onto these services, nor is it as simple as referring people to our emergency departments, which people know are already choked up, considering it is emergency departments that rely on the helpline to provide those people with that emergency assistance. We know that the helpline is a necessary—in fact, I would argue, a very critical—part of the continuum of services needed to effectively support users and those impacted by their meth use.
I am happy when this government comes back to this place and says that it has listened to the community and has decided to reverse decisions around funding cuts. I really hope that the government will put the funding of the meth helpline into this category. As I said, there is a way to almost put it on a bit of a holding pattern, in the sense that I recognise that right now the government may not have the money to further promote the service, although I have to say that it is really needed. At the very least, we need to maintain the current capacity of the meth helpline and in the future, frankly, we need to increase it quite significantly. Hopefully, at that point we can also increase the level of promotion so that people can access that service, because the one thing we want to do in this state for the betterment of the community, and also for good financial management, is to make sure we deal with this issue of meth and help people get off it as soon as possible.
[Speeches and comments from various members]
Debate interrupted, pursuant to standing orders.
Sitting suspended from 4.15 to 4.30 pm