28th of May, 2024
Victorian Legislative Council, Melbourne

RACHEL PAYNE (South-Eastern Metropolitan) Substantive question: My question is for the Minister for Mental Health Minister Stitt. Australia’s only specialist benzodiazepine dependency treatment centre is here in Victoria. Reconnexion provides specialist services to treat, support and inform those dealing with withdrawal, anxiety, insomnia and depression. Reconnexion’s funding runs out in July. They will have to cut staff, and this will increase wait times. This government has justified this cut based on SafeScript becoming embedded in the healthcare system, but this does not include the range of specialist services Reconnexion does. So my question is: will the minister commit to supporting the restoration of Reconnexion’s funding?

Substantive question – verbal response: I thank Ms Payne for her question. It is an important area, and obviously the Victorian government is committed to, in many ways, reducing drug-related harm in our community. We are proud of the fact that we have provided more than $376 million for the next financial year for many, many of our wonderful community organisations that provide support in this area. Reconnexion is a service of EACH and remains the only specialist service in Australia. It has been continuously funded by the Department of Health for 36 years. I would certainly like to take the opportunity to thank and acknowledge all of the team at Reconnexion for that important work.

In terms of the particular program that you are talking about, that was a fixed-term funding arrangement that was provided for that organisation from 2019, and it was associated with the implementation of the SafeScript system to meet an expected increased demand for support from the rollout of that initiative. Additional funding provided to EACH for the Reconnexion program was provided on that fixed term while we waited for the SafeScript system to mature. We obviously continue to fund important helpline services that are aimed at reducing drug-related harm in our community, such as the DACAS and the DirectLine. Obviously with the announcement of our statewide action plan there is a further $95.1 million that has been invested to reduce drug-related harms right across the community. So it was a very specific short-term range of supports that were provided associated with the introduction of SafeScript.

Supplementary question: I thank the minister for her response. By way of supplementary, Reconnexion’s program have highlighted a nationwide problem of benzodiazepines being prescribed for extended periods of time, often without warning about the risk of dependency. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that around 4.9 million benzodiazepine scripts have been dispensed to 1.4 million patients since 2021–22. This report also highlighted that between 1997 and 2022 the rate of death where benzodiazepines were present rose from 1.9 per 100,000 population to 2.7. Will the minister advise what steps they are taking to address benzodiazepine dependency and reduce harm?

Supplementary question – verbal response: Obviously there is a role here for the federal government in terms of them being the primary funder of primary health services and GPs and the education that is required for GPs to understand the importance of safely prescribing. It is certainly something I am happy to follow up with my counterparts federally and in other jurisdictions, but I think it is important to acknowledge that as a state we do continue to provide very substantial funding and support programs that are about people reducing any drug-related harm, including from prescription drugs.

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