Disability and mental health groups say funding uncertainty related to the federal government’s upcoming budget is putting people’s lives at risk.
Thousands of Australians seeking help for mental health problems and disability are unsure if funding for critical support services and programs will continue past June 30.
Treasurer Joe Hockey reportedly told his party room on Tuesday that the savings he will propose in the May budget will be “responsible, measured and fair”, but fears about cuts to funding have motivated 70 mental health groups to combine forces.
The groups, including Mental Health Australia, Headspace, and the Black Dog Institute, wrote an open letter to Mr Abbott and Health Minister Sussan Ley, with a clear message – “ensure the continuity of services or risk a mental health system failure in the very near future”.
The letter says: “We have not received any definitive advice regarding the future of programs.”
“Some agencies have indicated that without this advice, they will have to give staff notice of termination of employment in a matter of days.
“This ongoing uncertainty is causing a huge disruption to organisations and increasingly, deep anxiety amongst the people they serve.”
The Department of Health is still deciding which services will receive funding in this year’s budget.
Shadow Mental Health Minister Senator Jan McLucas told The New Daily she had called on the Abbott Government several times to release the final report of the National Mental Health Commission’s mental health review, so the sector can digest it and make recommendations before the budget is announced in May.
The review is with Ms Ley, but no date has been set for its release.
“Most organisations funded to deliver programs and services have reported staffing cuts, as well as the winding down of services, because they have no confidence about the future,” Ms McLucas says.
“Some organisations will be forced to terminate staff contracts on April 1, in accordance with workplace standards, unless they have funding certainty.
“I’ve also heard that people living with mental illness are not being referred to counselling sessions due to the uncertainty of whether the full program of treatment will be able to be delivered.”
Ms Ley says the government is finalising immediate funding arrangements as part of its commitment to give mental health organisations certainty as soon as possible.
“In my consultations with mental health organisations, I have been highly conscious of the need for certainty and we’re committed to working with the sector to continue delivering frontline services to those who need it,” Ms Ley said.
Mental Health Australia chief executive Frank Quinlan told ABC News Breakfast on Tuesday that the sector needed clarification on funding and hoped that Mr Abbott and Ms Ley acted quickly to resolve the issue.
One provider, the MindSpot Clinic, already told patients free online and telephone support may not be available after April 15 due to funding uncertainty, the ABC reports.
MindSpot is a free service for Australian adults with stress, worry, anxiety, low mood or depression.
The organisation’s director Professor Nick Titov said the uncertainty is concerning for both staff and patients.
The service has helped 30,000 people and is seeing 300 to 400 new people each week, half of them from rural and regional areas where there are no face-to-face mental health services.
Disability uncertainty ‘not good enough’: Macklin
Shadow Minister for Disability Reform Jenny Macklin told The New Daily that the uncertainty is “just not good enough”.
Ms Macklin says on Christmas Eve in 2014 the Abbott Government “took the knife” to eight peak disability organisations, cutting their funding entirely.
“This included organisations like Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, Blind Citizens Australia, Brain Injury Australia and Deafness Australia. Each of them providing an important voice for people with disability around Australia,” Ms Macklin says.
“Fortunately – due to the relentless campaigning of people with disability around Australia – these organisations have now had their funding extended until June.
“But they still have no certainty about their future after June. That’s just not good enough.
“Labor calls on the Government to make this funding permanent, and give people with disability the certainty that they deserve.”