The first survey, covering 2013, provided a snapshot of the experiences of drug and alcohol treatment services as they entered a new delivery landscape. This landscape was characterised by the closure of the National Treatment Agency (NTA) and its absorption into Public Health England (PHE), as well as the transfer of budgets and commissioning responsibilities for substance use services to local authorities.
While the first report found no evidence of deep and widespread disinvestment, in its second year (2014) the survey found that many respondents were experiencing or anticipating substantial funding reductions. This trend has continued into 2015, with a considerable proportion of both community and residential providers reporting a reduction in funding. Overall, the 2015 report finds that 38% of community drug services and 58% of residential services reported a decrease in funding. Given the announcement in the Autumn Spending Review that public health funding will be reduced by 3.9% per year for the rest of the current Parliament, challenges around resourcing safe and high quality services clearly remain.
Reductions in funding are causing significant disruption to service delivery. In London, reliable sources have indicated that over the last five years up to 50% of the funding for substance misuse services has been cut. The impact of cuts can include; larger caseloads, declining access to workforce development, limited core services, less outreach, less access to employment, training and education provision, and less capacity to respond to complex needs.
Frequent recommissioning is another disruption to service delivery. The 2015 State of the Sector report finds that 44% of services had been through tendering or contract re-negotiation in the previous year and half (49%) expected to go through one of these processes during the year ahead. Furthermore, the income volatility is putting many smaller excellent providers under significant financial strain.
Funding is not the only cause for concern. The challenge of offering effective, joined-up support to service users with multiple and complex needs, and in particular individuals with co-occurring substance use and mental health issues, is a thread which runs through the three reports.
Beyond addressing substance use, the most significant support needs of those using services are: self-esteem, physical and mental health, employment support and financial support and advice. A fifth of respondents in the 2015 State of the Sector report felt that access to mental health services and housing/housing support has worsened over the last year, indicating that better joined-up support for people with dual diagnosis and multiple and complex needs is still required. This is particularly concerning given the documented view in 2014 was that services had got worse. This reflects a worrying downward trend.
I know these concerns are shared by frontline staff, commissioners and providers, and as funds are cut further there is an increasing risk of unmet need and unsafe service models. Unless Local Authorities are careful we may find services being closed as result of serious concerns being identified by the Care Quality Commission. Another risk is Local Authorities are forced to cut substance misuse services to the extent that they can no longer provide community-based alternatives to custody for those with drug and alcohol problems, placing additional pressure on a prison service already in crisis and struggling to cope with drug-use in many establishments.
When the drugs strategy is published this year perhaps the first job should be a long hard look at its affordability.