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Drug-testing trial: “We would not treat anybody else with an illness in this way”

February 2018

One of Australia’s leading providers of treatment and rehabilitation services to people with alcohol and drug use issues has expressed its disappointment at the Federal Government’s decision to introduce legislation for a drug-testing trial of new income support recipients, saying it is punitive and risks harming vulnerable and ill people who need medical help.

The Government had previously abandoned this proposal due to a lack of parliamentary support informed by unanimous opposition from health and medical groups.

St Vincent’s Health Australia – which is a major provider of alcohol and drug treatment and withdrawal services at its Sydney and Melbourne St Vincent’s hospitals – said the measures weren’t backed up by evidence and weren’t an effective way of helping people with substance use disorders manage their illness and stay in touch with the job market.

“People with drug and alcohol addictions are wrestling with a clinically-recognised illness. We would not treat anybody else with an illness in this way because there would be a public outrage,” said A/Prof Nadine Ezard, Clinical Director, St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney’s Alcohol and Drug Service.

“Can anyone point to a single piece of evidence – here or overseas – that shows the likelihood of this approach succeeding? It just doesn’t exist.”

The Australian National Council of Drugs has reviewed the evidence and concluded: ‘There is no evidence that drug testing welfare beneficiaries will have any positive effects for those individuals or for society, and some evidence indicating such a practice could have high social and economic costs.’

“If the Government truly wants to help this vulnerable group of jobseekers they would talk with addiction medicine specialists – along with health consumers, carers, and community organisations – to help design a policy that works. But they haven’t. There’s been no clinical input in putting this policy together despite its potential impact on the health and well-being of people with substance use issues.

“By definition, people with severe substance use disorders are unable to modify their behaviour, even in the face of known negative consequences.

“In fact, an increase in stigma and anxiety for people with substance use disorders will exacerbate addiction issues rather than address them. We are concerned that people with addictions – even those outside the trial locations – will fear their welfare payments will be affected if they seek help.

“Threats of income management or removal of payments won’t work to help people off drugs.

"International experience shows that when you push people to the brink – like removing their income support – things just get worse.

"We are risking more crime, more family violence and more distress within the community.

“It’s also a waste of public money: drug testing is helpful in monitoring treatment effectiveness, but not in helping people towards treatment. We need prompt access to good quality treatment. 

“A much less expensive and more effective approach would be to use the already existing flags within the welfare payments system – which indicate when someone is struggling with their drug and alcohol use – and support these people to access health services in a timely way.”

St Vincent’s Health Australia is also concerned by media reports that the Government proposes to reintroduce changes to the Disability Support Pension Impairment Tables, previously rejected by the Senate.

“Making it harder for people who are severely impaired by drug and alcohol use disorder from accessing the Disability Support Payment is extremely concerning,” said A/Prof Ezard.

“The fact that the Government has returned to its drug testing legislation, and is rumoured to be doing the same with its DSP Impairment Tables, shows they’re not serious about finding long-term solutions to help this group of vulnerable people exit from poverty and joblessness.”