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St Vincent’s criticises Disability Support Pension changes for people severely impaired by drug and alcohol misuse

June 2017

St Vincent’s Health Australia – the nation’s largest non-profit provider of health and aged care services – has described the Turnbull Government’s plan to make it harder for people who are severely impaired by drug and alcohol misuse to access the Disability Support Pension (DSP) as punitive and unfair.

Announced in its May budget, people who are severely impaired by alcohol or drug dependence will be diverted onto income support and have mutual obligation requirements from 1 July if the measure passes the Parliament.

St Vincent’s – which is a major provider of alcohol and drug treatment services at its Sydney and Melbourne public hospitals – said the government’s proposal would cause major hardship among people who were already extremely vulnerable.

“We’re talking about people who are so seriously struggling with the damage caused by years of heavy alcohol and drug use that they are unable to look after themselves, let alone apply for, or hold down, a job,” said Associate Professor Yvonne Bonomo, St Vincent’s Melbourne’s Director of Addiction Medicine.

“People who have long-term addictions are, by definition, unable to quickly or easily change their behaviour – even in the face of all the negative consequences. It is unrealistic to think a person with a severe substance dependence will stop using drugs and start looking for a job simply because they can’t apply for the DSP. It’s just not that easy for people in these circumstances.

“This measure will not improve a person’s job prospects. On the contrary, it’s likely to thrust their already difficult lives into greater turmoil. People who are unable to comply with their job search requirements are at risk of having their income support payments cut off.”

A person’s access to the DSP is administered by a set of 15 Impairment Tables covering areas as diverse as intellectual, mental health, visual and limb function. The tables are used to assess how an individual’s disability or chronic illness affects their capacity to work.

The Turnbull Government plans to abolish Impairment Table 6, which is used to assess a person’s permanent impairment due to long years of very heavy use of alcohol, drugs or other harmful substances.

“What’s really concerning is that the government has made this decision without any medical advice or input,” said St Vincent’s Health Australia’s CEO, Toby Hall.

“The DSP Impairment Tables were updated in 2012 after a long and consultative review that was guided and led by clinicians, allied health and rehabilitation experts; people living with disabilities; mental health advocates; and relevant Government agencies. The proposed new tables were then tested by an independent body before being implemented.

“However, in this case, none of this consultation has occurred.

“This is not about giving handouts to people who are using drugs or alcohol recreationally. The threshold for someone who is severely impaired to access the DSP is extremely high.

“Many of the people this measure will affect have gone through treatment – some of them many times – with only brief periods of remission, if at all.

“As a leading provider of treatment and withdrawal services, St Vincent’s has grave concerns about how this measure will affect some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

“We’re asking the Turnbull Government to withdraw the measure from the Parliament. If they continue to pursue it, we’re calling on Labor, the Greens and the minor parties and independents to vote it down in the Senate,” said Mr Hall.

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