The tip of the iceberg

We have just seen the highest drug related deaths figures ever; these figures record deaths from drug poisoning, but services providers know that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is an alarming increase in the numbers of people dying in treatment as a result of chronic ill health.

An aging population of people with drug and alcohol problems are becoming unwell and often receive a poor service from the NHS in relation to their wider health needs because they struggle to navigate an increasingly complex treatment system and are often treated as undeserving by both our health system and local authorities that are under extreme financial pressure.

Imagine that you are living with a completely treatable infection, that left untreated, can cause a life changing illness (for some ultimately death) and the health service said you had to wait until you developed this life threatening related illness before they would treat you. You would rightly be outraged.

This is precisely what is happening to those who have hep C despite a range of new highly effective NICE approved treatments, with few side effects, that offers a cure for hep C. Only 3-4% of people a year currently get treatment. Unless you have a hep C related illness e.g. cirrhosis you are unlikely to be treated and even then it will have to be serious enough. Many of those with hep C who are not deemed ill enough to deserve treatment do not have their condition adequately monitored.   Sadly many GP’s tell me that they monitor those with hep C who appear to be in reasonable health but then suddenly get ill very quickly, with often fatal consequences.

This discrimination happens because around 90% of those with hep C contracted it via injecting drug use. Although many will have contracted hep C many years ago and have moved away from substance misuse they are often treated with suspicion. They are perceived as unreliable patients on whom expensive treatments are not to be wasted. Alongside this those most at risk of spreading hep C to others are seen as chaotic and thus undeserving or unsuitable.

Naloxone is a drug that saves lives by temporarily reversing the effects of opioid drugs. It costs £18 or less per pack and is recommended by the ACMD, WHO, Public Health Ministers and PHE who actively support its wide provision to those at risk of opioid overdose. Despite this many local authorities, including Liverpool, are still refusing to allow treatment providers to distribute it, denying people access to a life saving tool at a time when we are seeing a significant jump in opiate related overdose deaths. Some years ago Liverpool hosted an international harm reduction conference recognising its historical place in the history of harm reduction in drugs services.

In 2014, (after over 34 years of working in the drug, alcohol and criminal justice sectors, and as Blenheim celebrated 50 years of social action) I committed both Blenheim and myself to do everything in our power to ensure that the worlds best evidenced based treatment system was not destroyed by dogma, localism and cuts to public sector finances. Whilst recovery and ending dependency are hugely important we believe harm reduction is equally as important. Some of our sector’s best work is the daily interventions to keep people alive until they are ready to change.

I was concerned then about disinvestment by local authorities in the drug and alcohol treatment sector to fund a wide range of other equally important and underfunded public health priorities. The subsequent cuts and impending disinvestment have exceeded even my most pessimistic view of the future. We face a return to a post code lottery of underfunded services, ill prepared for the next wave of alcohol and drug dependency or to support those in often chronic ill health.

This year, 2016-17, we are seeing a 30% reduction in funding for drug and alcohol services with local authorities facing often impossible challenges, in the current financial climate, in meeting even their statutory responsibilities. With the ring fence coming off the public health grant and its abolition following the proposed introduction of Business Rate Retention, it will become increasingly difficult for local authorities to justify spending on drug and alcohol services when they cannot adequately fund services they are mandated to deliver. There is an urgent need to make the provision of a full range of drug and alcohol treatment services a statutory responsibility for local authorities.

To quote Collective Voice, an organisation part funded by Blenheim along with other large providers:

“Recent reduction in heroin use has been concentrated amongst the under-30s leaving behind a drug treatment population who are increasingly in frail health because of the cumulative impact of decades of drug addiction, problem alcohol use, poor diet, fragile mental health, and smoking. This leaves them significantly more vulnerable than their age would indicate and places a significant burden on mainstream NHS clinical services.

“Despite this, drug and alcohol treatment is not a natural priority for local authorities, the NHS or public health professionals. This places this area of activity at particular risk from the negative consequences of the proposed replacement of the ring-fenced Public Health Grant with a system of business rate retention.

“Drug and alcohol treatment provides for an unpopular and marginalised population seen by local electors, and politicians as undeserving, particularly in comparison to alternative service user populations such as children and the elderly. Without someone in local systems to champion the agenda there is a continuing risk of deprioritisation and disinvestment.”  

There is growing evidence that local politicians feel that drug and alcohol treatment is an NHS function rather than a local authority public health function. Many are already uncomfortable at the proportion of PHE funding to local authorities that is currently spent on drug and alcohol provision.

At Blenheim we work with a wide range of organisations and government departments to fight for drug and alcohol services and to ensure people in treatment aren’t discriminated against. In doing so we are supported at Westminster, by many hard working politicians from all major parties, who help us hold Government to account.

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