COMMENT:

When Finance Minister Grant Robertson delivers his world-first wellbeing Budget on May 30, the disability sector will be watching closely for how far the Coalition Government really does walk the talk when it comes to its "kindness" mantra.

In our sector, we have a crisis in funding, laid bare in recent Official Information Act documents published by the NZ Herald (April 21), which painted a bleak picture of the desperate measures pushed by the Ministry of Health to save money.

The papers showed the sector faced a $90 million deficit, and that the ministry had urgently ordered savings of $30 million over this financial year and the next.

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Savings on paper translate to a harsh reality for those who rely on support services. Those cuts effectively mean disabled people don't get the same hours of support – less help for showering, cleaning, transport to activities – all things non-disabled people take for granted as they go about their daily lives without the challenges disabled people face.

The big cuts demanded by the Ministry of Health were stopped in their tracks thanks to the last-minute intervention of Ministers.

New Zealand Disability Support Network chief executive Garth Bennie. Photo / Supplied
New Zealand Disability Support Network chief executive Garth Bennie. Photo / Supplied

I can well imagine how the penny dropped in their Beehive offices when the reality of those cuts was made clear to a government that has promised to be transformational and put the wellbeing of people at the centre of all that they do.

They must have been horrified and I hope it's because they were not simply worried about the political fallout, but because they genuinely care about the welfare of people. It's certainly the feeling I am getting from my meetings with Ministers.

It's a refreshing change in tone after a decade of underfunding by previous governments which failed to adequately provide funding to meet changes in need, growth in demand and rising costs for providers. Sure, there were funding increases, but they largely met the costs of pay equity settlements (and then only partially) along with what has proved to be paltry contributions to meet increased demand and need.

So, as every year went by, the funding gap just kept widening. For disabled people and their families, this meant reduced access to support and increased time on waiting lists. For providers, it meant doing more with less.

Our own calculations conservatively estimate that the sector is $150 million behind (in addition to the current $90 million overspend) with a 12 per cent gap between funding provided by the Government and the real costs for support faced by support agencies.

So, when the Ministers ordered a hasty u-turn to stop what really amounted to ruthless, across-the-board cuts to services, thousands of disabled people breathed a sigh of relief.

The wellbeing Budget is a moment in time to put our sector, and other areas crying out for a new approach, like mental health, on a sustainable funding pathway.

We remain worried, though, that cuts by stealth may well be happening as the agencies who assess needs and decide on support packages for people – Needs Assessment and Service Coordination agencies - continue to sharpen the knife based on some misguided objective to rein in spending. We will be vigilant to that. Now is not the time for any backsliding.

The real challenge is what happens next?

The wellbeing Budget is a moment in time to put our sector, and other areas crying out for a new approach, like mental health, on a sustainable funding pathway.

We are greatly encouraged by recent public comments by Robertson. In a recent interview he said the proposed cuts were "not acceptable" and that the current funding model was "not sustainable."

Robertson has promised to make progress on a properly sustainable model. This is good news and we will need some bold and innovative thinking to address the vagaries of the current system – one that is clearly broken. The sector is ready to participate in a co-design approach to develop solutions.

Of course, one Budget will not solve our challenges. But I am hopeful - come Thursday, May 30 as the wellbeing Budget is unveiled - it will signal a fresh approach and a real commitment to turn around the situation.

We just cannot keep on a pathway that simply puts up barriers, discriminates and keeps the promise of "Enabling Good Lives" permanently over the horizon.

All the signs are starting to point in a better direction. Thousands of disabled New Zealanders, their families and support agencies, will be watching closely for a change that finally removes the worry so many face about the certainty of continuing to get the support they need.

Dr Garth Bennie is chief executive of the New Zealand Disability Support Network