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More than 300 Bay of Plenty residents are receiving Government benefits because they are unable to work due to substance addiction.

Figures obtained by the Bay of Plenty Times revealed that 303 people in the region were receiving benefits because alcohol, drugs or other substances had rendered them incapable of fulltime work.

In Tauranga alone, 117 people were receiving benefits as a result of “primary incapacity for substance abuse”, Ministry of Social Development figures revealed.

The ministry released the figures in response to an Official Information Act request by the paper.

The ministry’s deputy chief executive of service delivery, Ruth Bound, said beneficiaries receiving health-related benefits must have a signed medical certificate from an independent health practitioner, which states the primary reason they are unable to work.

“A person’s primary condition may be recorded as substance abuse but there are often other associated conditions the person may also be managing,” Ms Bound said.

“These could include, for example, liver disease, gastrointestinal problems and bacterial infections.”

The “primary incapacity for substance abuse” category included incapacities for alcohol, drugs and other substance abuse.

Ms Bound said the decision on suitable treatment options for people with a substance addiction was not made by Work and Income.

“This is decided by the individual, along with their medical practitioner as part of their treatment plan. The plan, including suitable work obligations, is agreed upon in conjunction with the general practitioner, case manager and the client.”

Ms Bound said people who were unable to work due to a health condition, injury or disability were exempt from work obligations for a period determined by an independent health practitioner.

None of the Work and Income beneficiaries in the Bay with a primary incapacity for substance abuse had fulltime work obligations.

The Bay’s Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services Trust director Tommy Wilson said drug addiction was similar to homelessness.

“Until you deal with what causes the homelessness or what causes the addiction, you’re really just shovelling the problem from agency to agency,” he said.
Mr Wilson said to do that, front line services consisting of professionals who knew how to deal with the causes of addiction, not just the addiction itself, were needed.

The ministry figures revealed the number of Work and Income clients in the Bay with a primary incapacity for substance abuse had steadily declined in the past five years.

As of September 2012, there were 419 people in the category. By September this year, the figure had fallen to 303.

In Tauranga, the number dropped from 204 to 117 beneficiaries in the period.

Mr Wilson believed there were two reasons for the change.

“We’re getting better at treating addiction with the wonderful services like Hanmer Clinic in Tauranga Moana,” he said.

“[And] the agencies are becoming far better at screening those that are on sickness benefits and using it as a lifestyle.”

He said problems such as homelessness and addiction had a similar cure.

“People become addicted because they are disconnected, just like when they are homeless. Our job as community is to reconnect them.”
The New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union said although some beneficiary advocates believed all Government benefits should be “no strings attached”, it thought it was reasonable to expect people to help themselves if taxpayers were supporting them financially.

“In the case of drug and alcohol addition, sickness benefits are generally available, however unemployment benefits are not. That seems fair to us,” said executive director Jordan Williams.

“If people are actively refusing treatment, why should taxpayers be on the hook in perpetuity, or incentivise continued drug-taking?”

Mr Williams said it was concerning that in some areas drug and alcohol treatment facilities were unavailable or oversubscribed.

“That’s the sort of front line service that all taxpayers would prefer money going to than being wasted [on bureaucracy] in Wellington.”

September 2016: 303
September 2015: 307
September 2014: 333
September 2013: 352
September 2012: 419
September 2016: 117
September 2015: 140
September 2014: 148
September 2013: 156
September 2012: 204
Source: Ministry of Social Development

By Juliet Rowan @Bay_Times, Sonya Bateson @Bay_Times

– Bay of Plenty Times