Three more months to make plans for dementia patients
FAMILIES of dementia patients have been counting down the days to June 31, desperately hoping funds would not be cut to the Northern NSW Local Health District's vital Dementia Outreach Service.
At last they have a glimmer of hope - or, at the very least, an extra three months to make plans for their loved ones.
News of the service's uncertain future broke in early December.
The Commonwealth Government is shutting down its Home and Community Care program, under which the service is provided, from July 1.
Instead, a range of such services will be brought under a single banner - the Commonwealth Home Support Program.
But no guarantees have been made of continued funding to the Dementia Outreach Service.
Health workers have been kept in the dark and final decisions on how patients will be cared for after the restructure are yet to be finalised.
It has been a stressful time for carers, but Federal Member for Page Kevin Hogan has now stated any changes to the program's funding would not happen until after October 31.
"I met with (NNSWLHD CEO) Chris Crawford before Christmas, and he said their issue was that they weren't sure what was happening," Mr Hogan said.
"They said if (the program) goes into another form, they were fine, but they wanted to make sure it was not going to be a vacuum."
Mr Hogan gave his word dementia services within the health district would continue, but said what form they would take - and whether they would be managed through the private sector, as is widely believed - remained to be determined.
Because those important decisions had still not been made, the Federal Government extended the program's funding by three months.
"That was a good move, I think," Mr Hogan said.
"The deadline was getting too close. It was the right thing to do.
"The services provided to the public will be happening under a different provider or government program.
"They may want to take the existing staff on board, but it is too premature to discuss that."
APN News & Media told Lismore geriatrician Dr Alison Semmonds about the new cut-off date, after receiving a copy of a letter she wrote on Monday to Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley.
She had pleaded with Ms Ley to rethink any move to cut funding to the program that provides support to dementia patients and their families over a 20,732sq km area, encompassing regional centres Tweed, Ballina, Byron Bay, Grafton, Lismore and dozens of smaller towns and villages.
"I cannot express clearly enough what a personal and regional disaster this will be for the people who have dementia, those with cognitive impairment and all who care for them," Dr Semmonds had written.
"Increases in the number of people with dementia in Tweed, Ballina, Clarence and Lismore state electoral divisions are predicted to range from 281% to 246% by 2050.
"Tweed Heads is projected to have the highest number of people with dementia of all NSW state electoral divisions through to 2050.
"These figures alone beggar belief that any dementia services could be eliminated."
She said the current service was highly effective and any shift to a private sector model to cut costs would be to the detriment of patients and their carers.
She also said staff had begun considering their future career paths in light of the June funding cut-off date.
On hearing about the extension to October 31, Dr Semmonds sighed with relief.
But she knew her patients and their families were not out of the woods yet.
Over the coming months, Dr Semmonds plans to encourage carers to lobby the government to show how important the Dementia Outreach Service is to their lives and the lives of those they love.
"I'm very pleased that an attempt has been made to address the situation, but I remain concerned there are no assurances given at this stage that the wonderful service will be able to continue in the long-term," she said.
Health Minister Sussan Ley did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.