Funding increase won't address issues at the coalface

5:30 pm on 28 September 2020

Disability Support Services are already on the brink of their respective financial capabilities, and the Government's token one percent increase does little to address the bigger issue yet again.

A mother pushes her adult daughter around a shopping mall in a wheelchair.

File photo. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Shortages in funding is not exactly a new problem facing the disability sector, nor is it a terribly easy fix given the state of the economy right now, but you'd forgive disability support providers for not buying Covid-19 and its hit on the nations finances as a justifiable excuse for two reasons.

What the government is currently spending on disability support services is fiddly compared to amounts of expenditure going elsewhere. $833 million as announced in Budget 2020 is a miniscule investment, perhaps even tokenistic in comparison to the wider expenditure going elsewhere even in the post-covid climate.

For us in the disability sector, this isn't a new problem. Too many are being shortchanged by the system that we say is built on leaving nobody behind.

The harsh reality is that many are being left behind, and such examples have been seen time and time again. We all know someone who has spent large amounts of time on a waiting list, all the while being forced to forgo some of the most basic day-to-day care like showering in some cases.

The Government appears to have a very different view, one that believes access is all but assured, but the feeling at the coalface is anything but.

Last week, disability support providers around the country were left furious with the one percent funding increase for services despite the government's big claims of "rebuilding better" back in Budget 2020.

The Ministry of Health has informed all DSS providers and NASCs that the increase would be the first for "across the board" services in many years.

What the so-called increase really equates to is around $18 - $20m in funding that will be spread among some 16 NASC's, ultimately tricking down to over 13 different types of services funded by MoH with everything from personal care, mobility equipment, behavior support, community residential services, and funded family care all having a piece of the pie.

Sounds good on paper, right? You'd be forgiven for thinking that this Government is on the right track for ensuring that services, so many of which are underlined by the well-documented Enabling Good Lives principles, continue to run smoothly.

In fact, the government has doubled down on that claim. Back in May, Associate Minister for Health Jenny Salesa said that the increase would ensure the access to these supports, but that is far from accurate in the thinking of New Zealand Disability Support Network (NZDSN) head Garth Bennie.

Bennie says that the Ministry of Health has no coherent strategy in place for managing surging demand for services across the country and has expressed disappointment at the politicians that many look at for help.

"While the extra funding in Budget 2020 seems considerable, once all of the non-discretionary commitments like the Pay Equity settlement are met there is little left for anything else", Binnie said, "our disappointment is very much directed at the politicians because they need to step up and recognise what years and years of underfunding has done to the disability sector and how it has shortchanged disabled people."

Bennie and the NZDSN aren't new on the block when it comes to criticism of the current regime for disability support funding.

Releasing a hard-hitting sector briefing in late 2019, NZDSN pointed to the disability sector being $574m short moving into 2020, and despite the promised $833m boost over the next five years announced in this years Budget, what that actually equals in terms of service delivery is only in the ballpark of $160 - $190m in the coming financial year.

It doesn't take a mathematical genius to work out that there's going to be a major shortfall that builds upon the already sizeable strain so many providers. What it's resulting in is a loss of momentum, trickling down and ending with too many disabled people and their families being left in limbo.

Don't be quick to say disability support providers are simply looking out for their own interests either, because if that were true, closures of crucial every-day services provided by the likes of Laura Fergusson would have come far earlier than they did.

If that were really true, you'd find that the disability sector and its services would be far worse off than it is right now.

What's true is that many providers have thrown down their cards and revealed the full extent of the issue to their funders, but whether it is truly understood is another matter.

Government talks of assurance, but that's a far cry from the countless examples of support hours being cut, access to services rationed, and disabled people having feeling they're constantly in a fight to get what's been agreed to in their support plans.

This is the reality on the coalface of disability support services in New Zealand.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs