Drug testing an ‘upside-down’ policy

The AMA and other health stakeholders have reiterated their opposition to drug testing for welfare recipients, saying that the move could make it harder to get a job

AMA Federal Councillor and Chair of the Ethics and Medico-Legal Committee, Dr Chris Moy has spoken out on 3AW about the measure, telling Darren James that it is an “upside-down policy, really silly policy”.

The Senate has already rejected earlier attempts at trialling drug testing for welfare recipients, but the Morrison Government is again attempting to pass the legislation. If it is passed, it could see around 5000 recipients in three locations tested and referred to treatment in order to continue to receive payments.

Dr Moy said the AMA considered addiction to be a health issue, rather than a moral issue.

“This policy may make people feel better about the use of their taxpayers’ money, and I get that,” he told Mr James.

“But the concern is, for us, that, number one, it may stigmatise people,” Dr Moy said. “It may actually make their chance of getting another job later much harder. The next thing is there’s actually no evidence from international trials that this actually works.

“But probably the worst bit for me— and I’m a GP, I work on a day-to-day basis— is that what will happen is it will actually divert all the resources to somewhere where we already have a complete lack of resources, and that’s drug and alcohol services.”

He said that due to lack of treatment resources, a patient with a serious addiction problem would have difficulty accessing help and remaining in treatment.

“My sad reality is that we ain’t even close to providing enough resources out there. And even if we get them into the resources, I can think of several, even this week, where we’ve got them in and the resources are so scarce at the moment, that what actually happens is they stay in but then basically the service has to pull the plug quite early,” he said.

In a doorstop interview late last week Dr Moy also said that the AMA had been opposed to the measure “from the start”.

He said that, “there is a misunderstanding that addiction is a condition—it’s a medical condition. And the problem with this sort of policy is you’re playing the person rather than the ball, in terms of football terms.

“And we’re in a situation where you’ll get a situation where an individual who is maybe a one-off user will be identified as a drug user, and they’ll be diverted to very, very scarce drug and alcohol resources. I as a GP now can barely get somebody in there, and certainly not keep them in there long enough to actually get treatment.

“Wouldn’t it be much better policy to actually put those resources into drug and alcohol services, and in fact let us do the identification without all of the witch-hunt that may occur with this, so that we can actually get them into services and get it treated?”

The Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League said it was frustrated with the push to test welfare recipients without adequate access in place to drug treatment services.

“A review by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in 2014 found that there is substantial unmet demand within the AOD [alcohol and other drug] treatment sector across Australia, with an estimated 200,000—500,000 Australians each year unable to access treatment for problems associated with drug or alcohol use,” it said in a statement.

“AIVL notes the Government’s previous commitment of an additional $10 million in funding for treatment services across the trial locations of Canterbury-Bankstown, Logan and Mandurah. However, data from local Primary Health Networks that operate within the sites raises concerns about the ability of additional funding to enhance capacity within a significantly stretched system. 

“Needs analysis reports highlight long waiting lists for in-patient and community-based treatment, limited services for complex cases, limited access to pharmacotherapies, little scope for early intervention of drug-related issues and lack ongoing and sufficient funding to support demand within services and retain the AOD workforce.

“Despite additional investment into drug support services in these areas, AIVL is concerned that this will not be enough to adequately enhance system capacity and will displace those who voluntarily seek support for their drug use.”

Meanwhile a report released on Monday by Monash researchers found that recipients of unemployment and disability benefits are more likely to have multiple health conditions and to be hospitalised.

The study, led by Professor Alex Collie of the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, suggests that a focus on improving the health of these people could increase their ability to find and keep work.

Researchers analysed National Health Survey data of more than 9,000 people, including 638 disability pension recipients and 442 Newstart recipients.

People receiving the Centrelink benefits were more likely than workers to have many problems, and more likely to have multiple problems and diseases. They were more likely to be hospitalised, were heavy users of healthcare services, and had higher rates of medication use.

The rate of mental health conditions was much higher among people receiving the benefits, with 69% of disability pensioners and 49% of Newstart recipients reporting psychological or behavioural problems, compared with 21% of workers.

“It’s hard to work when you’re sick. We found large disparities between the health of people receiving Centrelink benefits and wage earners,” Professor Collie said.

“Some of the findings are quite concerning, particularly the high rates of mental health problems experienced by benefit recipients. We also found that disability pensioners had more than double the rate of hospital admissions compared to wage earners. People on Newstart were three times more likely to report having at least 10 health conditions.

“Our study suggests that efforts to improve health in these groups should be a priority for government. Improving health can help people find and keep work.”

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