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Australia’s Alcohol and Other Drugs sector calls for certainty and a national plan to build on covid changes

July 2020

Australia’s alcohol and other drug (AOD) sector is calling on federal, state and territory governments to make permanent or expand on reforms introduced during the pandemic to better support people experiencing issues with substance use.

Twenty-eight AOD organisations – including service providers, professional societies, consumer groups, and peak bodies representing hundreds of other treatment groups – are calling on governments in a new submission to extend pandemic-related changes to telehealth, digital access, and pharmacotherapy, and develop a national response to alcohol and other drug needs that covers investment in rural and regional services, workforce training, and more effective data gathering.

Dr Stefan Gruenert, CEO, Odyssey House Victoria said, as with other parts of the health sector, alcohol and other drug treatment services had experienced major upheaval during the pandemic – and shown significant flexibility – but it was now time for governments to move from temporary fixes to long-term solutions.

"Reforms introduced during the pandemic – such as expanding telehealth and digital access, and increasing flexibility around pharmacotherapies – were critical. So much so that, not only do we want to make them permanent, we want to improve and expand on them," said Dr Gruenert.

Melanie Walker, CEO, Australian Injecting & Illicit Drug Users League, said that with up to 500,000 Australians unable to access alcohol and other drug treatment services every year, deepening reforms had the potential to boost sector capacity.

"Many of these reforms were introduced to protect service users and workers from COVID-19, but they also have the potential to increase the reach of services to people in need," said Ms Walker.

"For example, telehealth and digital access have the capacity to reduce waiting lists. It’s not a replacement for face-to-face consultations, but it’s preferred by some service users.

"And while reforms to allow people receiving pharmacotherapy to take home a fortnight’s supply of medicine – rather than present daily for their dose to be administered – were about helping them avoid crowds during the pandemic, it also increased access and desirability for this treatment option.

"We should now build on these reforms. For example, we can make telehealth and digital platforms truly accessible to vulnerable people by making sure they have the technology to participate, or by removing dispensing fees for pharmacotherapy," said Ms Walker.

The organisations encouraged governments to make widespread reforms which would both extend help to people in need while delivering financial savings.

"For every $1 spent in alcohol and other drug treatment services, we save another $7, not just in health, but in other areas such as community services and justice," said Larry Pierce, CEO, Network of Alcohol and Other Drugs Agencies (NADA).

"During the pandemic we have seen governments focus on mental health supports, recognising the mental illnesses that will flow from the crisis. But we’ve not seen a response to the increase in the numbers of people engaging in alcohol and other drug use that’s on the same scale.

"Governments must develop a national plan that addresses the changes in alcohol and other drug use that have occurred as a result of the pandemic, just as they’ve done with the National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan.

"And anyone who’s familiar with alcohol and other drug treatment services knows that rural and regional Australia is starved of support. Services just aren’t available or waiting lists are too long.

"The economic impact of the pandemic, coupled with the bushfire crisis, has hit rural Australia hard. Governments can deliver more help to people in need by investing in alcohol and other drug treatment services outside metropolitan areas," said Mr Pierce.

Finally, the organisations encouraged governments to invest in the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the alcohol and other drug treatment sector: its workforce and data gathering.

"We must invest in the capacity of our people. The pandemic has thrown up a range of challenges for people working in treatment services. We need to make sure they have skills to meet the unique needs of this moment and beyond," said Scott Wilson, CEO, Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council, South Australia.

"And if we’re going to be in a position to better support growing numbers of people with alcohol and other drug problems – both now and post the pandemic – then we need to gather more accurate data, more often."

Media contact: Paul Andrews 0409 665 495

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