Kirsty Johnston is an investigative reporter at the New Zealand Herald.

'It's a crisis' - Disability head warns health minister the sector is a tragedy waiting to happen

The warning follows the case of several high-needs clients, including autistic man Ashley Peacock, whose treatment was labelled "cruel, inhuman and degrading" by the Ombudsman. Photo/Mark Mitchell
The warning follows the case of several high-needs clients, including autistic man Ashley Peacock, whose treatment was labelled "cruel, inhuman and degrading" by the Ombudsman. Photo/Mark Mitchell

• Disability head exposes "crisis" in the sector due to alleged underfunding
• Predicts providers' struggles to manage volatile situations will end in tragedy
• Labels circumstances "chillingly similar" to failings which sparked review
• Documents show ministry pulling back on some disability supports

Disability bosses have warned the Government their sector is in crisis, with systemic underfunding giving rise to volatile situations they predict will end in tragedy.

A letter to Health Minister Jonathan Coleman notes the circumstances - where providers are regularly faced with highly volatile situations - are "chillingly similar" to those which sparked the country's largest review into mental health failures, the 1988 Mason Inquiry.

"The advice from ministry officials at the time also underestimated the substance and scale of the sector problem," wrote Dr Garth Bennie, the chief executive of the New Zealand Disability Support Network.

"I do not use the word 'crisis' lightly, but as an accurate description of the challenges and risks being incurred by residential and supported living providers on a daily basis."

The warning follows Herald reports on the case of several high-needs clients, including autistic man Ashley Peacock, whose treatment was labelled "cruel, inhuman and degrading" by the Ombudsman.

It comes ahead of a Labour Party meeting with providers today, where it plans to discuss official documents which revealed the Ministry of Health tightened supports - despite knowing it would affect individuals' quality of life - to save money last year.

Papers show the ministry forecast a $45 million shortfall in the disability budget, so decided to pull back on funding for services such as household management and personal care for clients to save money. Household management helps disabled people with jobs such as laundry and shopping. Personal care includes support with showering or eating.

"[It] will mean for some people they will no longer be able to easily attend activities in the community ... There will be a reaction from the disability sector ... who will question how reducing supports is in line with more choice, control and flexibility and achieving a good life," documents said.

It also planned to cut funding where possible from the 30 "high and complex needs" clients who cost the most - those who often need round-the-clock care and bespoke services.

Read the funding documents here.

The struggles facing those clients were labelled by Bennie as the "front end" of the overall problem, which was that funding was "contributory only" in many cases, forcing providers to do more with less, and in some cases dig into their own reserves.

Dr Garth Bennie, the chief executive of the New Zealand Disability Support Network, has sent a letter to the government warning of a crisis in the sector. Photo/Supplied
Dr Garth Bennie, the chief executive of the New Zealand Disability Support Network, has sent a letter to the government warning of a crisis in the sector. Photo/Supplied

"Usually it's a couple of hundred dollars short per person, but in some cases it's tens of thousands a year," Bennie said.

Factors such as a rise in the minimum wage, new Health and Safety legislation, and the sleepover policy had raised costs, at the same time there was no increase in contract funding, he said.

"Because of the gap in funding providers and boards give up, and individuals are bounced from place to place. It becomes a spiral of managing risk, so people become ever more isolated. And that's when you see a human toll."

The warning follows the case of several high-needs clients, including autistic man Ashley Peacock, whose treatment was labelled "cruel, inhuman and degrading" by the Ombudsman. Photo/Mark Mitchell
The warning follows the case of several high-needs clients, including autistic man Ashley Peacock, whose treatment was labelled "cruel, inhuman and degrading" by the Ombudsman. Photo/Mark Mitchell

Labour's health spokeswoman Annette King said the situation was wholly unsatisfactory.

Money had been taken from other areas of the health budget to prop up disability, and this year it was awarded just $42 million extra in the budget to cover cost pressures, which was not enough, she said.

"When I read the letter I was alarmed. As the person who had to implement the recommendations from the Mason Inquiry, I know it took a crisis to admit we had a problem," she said.

"You have to listen to a sector when it says there could be serious incidents, or death. We have to provide safe services for people."

The warning follows the case of several high-needs clients, including autistic man Ashley Peacock, whose treatment was labelled "cruel, inhuman and degrading" by the Ombudsman. Photo/Mark Mitchell
The warning follows the case of several high-needs clients, including autistic man Ashley Peacock, whose treatment was labelled "cruel, inhuman and degrading" by the Ombudsman. Photo/Mark Mitchell

Associate Health Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga, who has responsibility for the disability portfolio, met with Bennie this month.

Lotu-Iiga said: "Disability Support Services are not in crisis. Dr Bennie is advocating for the disabled people when he raises concerns, and he is entitled to do that. The disability sector is doing a great job and I acknowledged that to Dr Bennie when we met.

"The Ministry has notified the sector providers that there will be a $22 million increase for disability services. This will cover increases in demand and cost price pressures.

The Ministry of Health deferred to the minister.

Judge Ken Mason headed two government reviews of the mental health system.

The first, which resulted in the 1988 Mason report, was sparked by a series of high-profile incidents involving mentally-ill people, including a violent attack and a number of suicides.

The report provoked controversy, and led to widespread changes in the sector, including the development of regional forensic psychiatry services.

The second inquiry ran in the 1990s, and resulted in the 1996 Mason Report.

This recommended a public education campaign to reduce discrimination associated with mental illness.

Read the letter to the minister here.

- NZ Herald

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