A growing sense of déjà vu and justified frustration can be felt as funding shortages for disability support services show no signs of slowing down – and one of the Ministers involved doesn’t seem to care. 

Disability support providers have once again aired their concerns over Government funding, or the lack thereof, in wake of the Ministry of Health detailing how its $72m financial expenditure needs to be spent this year.

Priorities for the expenditure are gender pay equity and meeting the growing demand for disability support services.

Service providers are unhappy and will continue to face the growing prospect of having to shut down completely in the future. Where this leaves the disability sector and the landscape of service provision is the million-dollar question, and it continues to spark much debate as everyone searches for a way forward.

But ask the Associate Minister for Health Julie Anne-Genter what she thinks and she’ll downplay the situation to nothing more than a matter of operations.

Much of the reaction on social media is calling for sector representatives to ask tougher questions of Ministry officials. Meanwhile, some providers and National Group Organisations (NGO’s) are also not immune to the growing criticism within the disability advocacy space.

Their structure is in question and there is a call for greater clarity surrounding expenditure with growing concerns about exactly how the Government’s financial injections have been used over the years, apart from simply providing services and meeting the rising operational costs.

CCS Disability Action, one of New Zealand’s biggest service providers, and the Disability Support Network (NZDSN), the national umbrella for providers, have both featured heavily in media coverage surrounding the issue of substantial funding shortages impacting the disability sector.

They say that the costs of supporting disabled people are rising and that the recent $72m funding increase for service provision won’t provide the adequate cover to deliver on contracts. The apparent effect of that is fewer clients being accepted by providers, leaving little to no alternative for many seeking specialized supports.

Perhaps this is why the Government announced fairer pay deals for some family caregivers?

According to concerns raised by providers, an increased financial deficit (said to be between $150 – $200m) is also impacting on the further continuation of other important aspects of their work, such as advocacy groups and accessibility work with local councils.

But the questions and the doubts remain as some advocates question the expenditure within these organisations as well as the strategic priorities year-to-year.

Most service providers have a paid board, chief executive, and management staff. Their general mission includes (but is not limited to) providing quality and specialized support services for disabled people and families as well as the sufficient professional training for frontline workers. The concern is over where this sits against the other priorities.

In other realms of social media, some asked why the voice of disabled people and families haven’t been included in some of the media coverage, including a report by RNZ on Monday.

According to the letter dated 3rd July sent to providers from the Ministry of Health, the priority for funding expenditure this year will be “achieving gender pay equity” and “meeting growing demand”.

Recent claims in the sector back up the concerns around demand raised in the MoH letter, with an estimated extra 20% of unidentified supports having come to the forefront since the launch of the Mana Whaikaha Enabling Good Lives scheme in the MidCental region.

Pay equity pressures have also increased due to the higher minimum wage that took effect in April 2019, this on top of the already rising costs associated with the caregivers pay equity deal.

To play devils’ advocate, one could argue that despite the increase in overall funding sector-wide, providers still face the same issues they did prior and that the direction of where money can be spent doesn’t address the problem. There is also the costs of transport and accommodation, holding meetings with key stakeholders, and all the other usual costs associated with running an organisation, often both with a national office and several smaller regional bases, all of which have those same costs in addition.

Is it any wonder that providers such as CCS Disability Action are expressing anger? In 2016, CCS undertook a nationwide overhaul to re-prioritise how it operated regionally with much more top-down emphasis. Many other providers have done the same and almost all of them have felt intense pressure to cut costs wherever possible.

In April, that pressure increased even more so when MoH was said to be “cutting services by stealth” before being stopped at the last minute from making even more radical changes to funding which would’ve seen $10m in cuts this year and a further $20m next year.

But ask the disability sector and you’ll be told that the support cuts are still continuing.

There is little doubt that the financial strain faced by the disability sector will be one that goes on for some time. Many have become fed up, and if you read between the lines of what the Ministry is attempting to do with its expenditure guidelines, their direction seems to be that of bringing more disabled people into the support system without fully measuring out the costs to support them.

Does anyone else get a sense of déjà vu?

Many who’ve previously denied that the disability sector is in a deep financial crisis are now starting to ring the bells for change, frustrated that ‘all the talk’ is leading to continued poor outcomes. There is a greater willingness from many to question the status quo, and most agree that the disability sector is in a deep financial crisis, one that has been going on for years it seems.

Simply saying so doesn’t begin to address finding a solution, both to the financial issues at hand but also the varying levels of silo within the disability sector itself

Disability Funding Increases Aren’t Actually Helping Anybody

For every small victory, it seems the disability sector is presented with another injustice from a Government (and previous Governments) that is keen on supporting the now infamous “nothing about us without us” disability narrative.

The reality is this. Decisions are being made above and beyond the concerns raised, not just by providers with financial obligations to meet, but by a growing number of disabled people on the ground.

This is not simply down to operational matters and expenditure, it’s about a willingness to engage in an on-going accountable dialogue between all parties. Substantial structural change may be required across the disability sector and who knows what that will look like because, for New Zealand, it will be completely uncharted territory.

The UN found New Zealand to be more than a little lacking on upholding the rights of persons with disabilities on nearly every front and it’s an embarrassment that the accountability of that seems to be a one-way ticket to nowhere.