Medical experts have slammed the government’s plan to drug test welfare recipients and labelled the consultation process as a “tick a box” exercise.

The government announced in the budget that it would test 5000 new welfare recipients for drugs, and those testing positive would be moved to an income-managed system, where 80% of their payment would be quarantined onto a debit card that can’t be used on gambling, alcohol, or drugs, with only 20% of the payment available in cash. On a second positive test, the recipient would be required to undertake a treatment plan and pay for the cost of the test.

In evidence given to a Senate committee, drug and alcohol specialists said there were between 200,000-500,000 people already seeking treatment for drug and alcohol issues in Australia per year who were not able to access services, while 200,000 were already accessing treatment each year.

Alison Ritter, director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the University of New South Wales told the committee her research in 2014 had tracked how many people were getting treatment, and how many were missing out. “Already treatment services are full and clinicians are fully occupied. There is the idea that one might be able to purchase a treatment place for someone out of the schedules in this welfare reform bill.

“All that will mean is that someone else will miss out on a treatment place, someone who perhaps is motivated to seek treatment. So the system doesn’t have the capacity and particularly the workforce doesn’t exist.”

[Destroying the joint: drug testing welfare recipients will be expensive and won’t work]

Adrian Reynolds, president of the Australasian chapter of Addiction Medicine at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, said there were not enough doctors in Australia to help people with addiction issues. “We don’t have sufficient addiction medicine specialists or other doctors or health professionals working in the field of drug and alcohol medicine.”

Nadine Ezard, clinical director at St Vincent Hospital’s Alcohol and Drug Service in Sydney, said no medical professionals were consulted before the plan was announced.

“We couldn’t find anyone from the sector or from health, actually, who was consulted before this bill appeared,” she told the committee on Wednesday.

[Drug-tested welfare recipients will be forced to disclose private health details to a third party]

Reynolds said that although government officials discussed the plan with him and other experts after the announcement, “the whole feel of it was that this was not a genuine consultation”.

“It was a ‘tick the box’ type measure, we felt. I don’t want to sound unkind.”

“These are discussions, not consultations. I would by no means call them consultations. We haven’t been asked our advice,” Ezard said.

Bankstown-Canterbury in western Sydney, Logan, Queensland, and Mandurah, WA, have been announced as the three trial areas for the program, which is set to start in January next year. The plan is yet to be passed by the Senate, with the government needing to convince crossbench senators to get the program off the ground.

Department of Human Services officials said that while the government knew what services were available in the three trial areas, they did not know how long the waiting lists for those services were. “We don’t, and the Department of Health doesn’t, as I understand it, have access to that information directly. We need to get it from the state governments,” Department of Social Services payment policy group manager Cath Halbert said.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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