Support for the disabled is being quietly cut person by person after the Ministry of Health backed down on sector-wide funding changes, advocates say.
Multiple providers across New Zealand said they had noticed a trend of delayed referrals, reduced support hours, and growing waiting lists in recent months.
They estimated that Disability Support Services, which is run by the ministry, was heading for a $100 million deficit and that it was attempting to find savings before the end of the financial year.
The ministry confirmed that an overspend was likely this year, but said no decisions had been made about funding.
The providers said that in the absence of a formal announcement by the ministry, subtle funding changes were taking place an on individual basis.
"Every hour of support is being questioned," said Community Care Trust (CCT) chief executive Mike Brummitt, whose Dunedin-based organisation looked after 280 people. "If someone gets 12 hours, they are saying do you need 10, or eight hours?"
Brummitt said he was recently informed by email that an intellectually disabled man in his 20s would have his funding cut in half - from $415 a day to $210.
"We know nobody has seen him since early 2017. No one spoke to our staff, his parents, advocate, no assessment. I've written back and said this is totally unsustainable."
CCT would continue to provide the same support to him, but at a financial loss.
The man's needs were complex and he required around-the-clock care, Brummitt said. When the organisation first took him on, he would not sleep in a bed, and curled up on the floor in the fetal position.
Cambridge mother Sarah Verran, who has a disabled daughter, said families she knew with disabled children were having their support hours reduced despite needs assessments saying their level of need remained the same.
Her 14-year-old daughter Ruby was diagnosed with a rare brain tumour three years ago. After a long fight, Ruby was moved onto ACC support late last year - which her mother said was more generous and secure than Disability Support Services.
"It comes down to the fight one has to get those supports, and it shouldn't be like that," Verran said.
Funding for providers is distributed by Needs Assessment and Service Co-ordination Services (NASCs), whose budgets are set by the Ministry of Health.
A North Island disability services provider, which did not want to be identified, said its NASC had said it was under instruction to claw back 10 per cent of funding by cutting back support services. After some resistance, those cuts were put on hold.
But in the last week alone, the provider said there had been two instances in which a person's hours of support had been cut - despite a needs assessor saying their hours should increase.
The ministry's director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said no decisions had been made about any changes to funding or service delivery. The ministry was considering how to ensure the sustainability of funding for disability support services, he said.
A rapid increase in costs had led to budget overruns in each of the past four years, and another overspend was forecast for this year - which the ministry was still calculating.
Associate Health Minister Julie Anne Genter said decisions about who received support were made by the ministry, and it had not been directed to cut funding by ministers.
Genter said an additional $58m was put into Disability Support Services in last year's Budget.
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NZ Disability Support Services chief executive Garth Bennie said this extra funding had been swallowed up by regulatory and compliance costs - including wage increases required after the pay equity settlement for carers.
"It does not translate into funding increases for providers or people with personal budgets," he said.