Innovation in the rural AOD sector needs sustainable funding

  • Australian bushland

Australian bushland

James Dunne, Policy and Projects Coordinator
Australian Alcohol and other Drugs Council

Australia’s alcohol and other drugs (AOD) sector is staffed by a workforce of dedicated, specialist practitioners who provide 230,000 episodes of care to over 100,000 Australians each year.

Almost 110,000 of these episodes of care are currently provided in regional, rural and remote areas and as the national peak body for the AOD sector, the Australian Alcohol and other Drugs Council is privy to the wide range of innovative practices that adapt to the challenges of service provision outside of metropolitan areas.  For example, in the treatment space, a community-based Opioid Dependence Treatment Program provider in rural Victoria has adapted to increasing wait lists and a shortage of GP prescribers by shifting towards a Nurse Practitioner model of pharmacotherapy prescribing to ensure access to treatment for country people.  In the harm reduction space, peer-based harm reduction services in Western Australia and New South Wales offer sterile injecting equipment via mail order, enabling people outside of metropolitan areas to access sterile injecting equipment confidentially through trusted, non-judgemental services, thereby decreasing blood borne virus transmission and injecting-related injury. 

These are just a couple of the ways the AOD workforce innovates to ensure access to the best possible care for people who need to access AOD services in rural, regional and remote Australia.

However, despite its broad reach and the holistic support it provides to a population of people who experience significant marginalisation, our workforce is increasingly required to do more with less.  Funding lags behind need and demand, indexation on national funding contracts is inconsistently applied and services need to navigate complex reporting requirements across multiple funding agencies and tiers of government.

Wages generally form around 75% of the costs of service delivery in the AOD sector and in last year’s Federal Budget, $17.3 million was allocated over two years from 2023–24 to the long-standing Drug and Alcohol Treatment Services Maintenance (DATSM) program, which for the last decade has enabled Commonwealth-funded AOD sector organisations to comply with modern award pay rates.  While last year’s allocation provided a welcome reprieve from immediate and significant funding cuts to the AOD sector in 2023, it has really only delayed the inevitable crisis in funding - the AOD sector will face the same issue this time next year when the funding is again set to run out.  More immediately, ongoing delays in contracting and distribution of AOD sector funds through Commonwealth agencies means that small services in rural areas may soon be required cover their staff costs through reserve funding yet again, or begin to close their books and turn clients away around Easter. 

In short, the AOD sector in rural and regional Australia cannot operate solely on the innovation, dedication and goodwill of its hard working, specialist workforce.  The sector requires a secure national base of funding, underpinned by a nationally coordinated approach to planning and priority setting.  Without this, we cannot deploy the full expertise of the AOD workforce in service delivery or achieve sustainable positive impacts on the lives of people who need to access AOD services, their families and communities in regional Australia.

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