Victoria's alcohol and drug treatment services have failed to keep pace with the growing substance abuse epidemic after a decade of neglect, an Auditor General's report revealed on March 2.
The report reviewed the Department of Health's $136 million alcohol and drug prevention efforts. It found the system is flawed and underfunded after the former state government failed to act on 31 internal reviews during its 10 years in office.
Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association executive officer Sam Biondo said there were more than 77,000 hospitalisations related to substance abuse in Victoria last year. Problems of staffing and funding inadequacy plagued the entire system.
Biondo said: “There are a range of issues at the hospital end with addiction medicine specialists, for example, where there's a lack of new recruits and new medicos, and the strains are falling on fewer doctors.
"Essentially, the system hasn't kept pace, nor received financial support to deal with the burgeoning issue.”
Biondo said the pharmacotherapy system — a prescribed medical treatment for substance addiction — is largely community-based and under serious strain, with more than 13,000 Victorians signed up to its programs.
"The strain of prescription, and the dispensing of that, is falling on fewer and fewer pharmacies and doctors, because that system has also not had the required investment to keep pace with inflation or developments over 10 years," he said.
The report estimated that alcohol and drug abuse cost Victoria $14 billion each year, which includes the cost of health care, crime, road accidents, injuries and lost productivity.
Minister for Mental Health Mary Wooldridge said it was shameful this area had not received the attention it deserved, and recommendations to improve the system under Labor had been largely ignored.
"The Labor government failed to develop and implement a drug and alcohol strategy, despite recommendations dating back to 2000 and repeated calls from the Coalition," she said.
But she stopped short of committing the Ted Baillieu Liberal government to a funding boost, despite the report's finding that funding for drug and alcohol services had dropped by more than 10% over three years.
Biondo said it was unfortunate, but he could see why the former government had failed to act on the industry's changing needs.
"The Labor government probably had a whole range of issues to deal with, and we just weren't a priority in that area," he said.
"This is not a sexy area, not one that's easy to deal with, and front pages of newspapers can quash policy initiatives.
"We know policy initiatives can change lives, but they're very few and far between.
Greens MLC Colleen Hartland called on the Baillieu government to adopt the report's recommendation for a whole-of-government alcohol and drug prevention strategy.
"Victoria needs a state-wide prevention strategy, less waiting time for people accessing services and better access to services for people in rural and regional communities," she said.
"There are a greater number of people carrying drug and alcohol problems into older adulthood, and waiting times are a barrier to the success of treatment."