Community Affairs Legislation Committee
Wednesday 17 October 2012
Mental Health and Drug Treatment Division
Senator WRIGHT: I will turn now to some questions about Lifeline. It has been reported that last year Lifeline was unable to answer 3,500 calls due to insufficient resources. That was 3,500 calls that went unanswered. Is that something the department is aware of?
Mr Mackay: I am aware of the media reporting in September which included claims about unanswered calls that had been made to Lifeline. There are some provisions in the current funding agreement that the department has with Lifeline that are seeking to boost their capacity to answer more calls.
Senator WRIGHT: Do you have any other form of information about that unmet need-let's call it that-apart from the media reports? Have you received any information in any other sort of official capacity that would alert you to that?
Mr Mackay: Yes, we receive progress reports against the funding agreement we have with Lifeline. I do not have the detailed figures from those reports with me, so if there is more detail that you would like I would have to take that on notice.
Senator WRIGHT: No, I am more interested in what you are aware of, really. From your first answer it would suggest that you only became aware of it because of the media reports.
Mr Mackay: No, Senator, I was referring to the specific number that you had mentioned. I made the assumption of where you were drawing that from. Yes, the reports that we have against the funding agreement do go to the detail of answer rates, calls that are abandoned, calls that are not answered and so on.
Senator WRIGHT: I was not referring to the media. I was referring to information that I am aware of. Given the large number of mental health organisations funded by the department that list Lifeline as the number to call for help, it is obviously an absolute primary source in terms of the work that we all too, has the department been working with Lifeline to address meeting the demand for their services? If so,-and you did indicate that that is part of the funding agreement and that there are negotiations there-what strategies and/or initiatives have been considered and how much will the total cost of implementation be over the forward estimates?
Mr Mackay: Over the three years to 2014-15, which is the period of the current funding agreement with Lifeline, the cost will be $25,306,000. That is GST exclusive.
Senator WRIGHT: Can I just clarifying. Is that the ongoing funding agreement or is that a particular cost associated with filling this gap?
Mr Mackay: That is the total figure.
Senator WRIGHT: That is the current figure under which they are operating, but what I have had raised with me is that that is not adequate to meet the demand that they are receiving. So, what strategies or initiatives is the department undertaking to address that unmet demand and, if there are those things, what are they projected to cost? What are they going to cost?
Mr Mackay: I would have to take the component cost part of the question on notice against the various initiatives. One that I particularly draw your attention to is the issue of overnight counsellors that Lifeline provides. Lifeline has traditionally operated a volunteer service and part of the issue in call answer rates, particularly overnight, as they reported to us, has been the inability to recruit and retain sufficient volunteers for overnight shifts to meet the demand in that time period. Part of that figure includes funding for Lifeline to pay overnight counsellors as opposed to relying on volunteers. I do have the figure since July 2012 that that move to paid overnight counsellors has increased their overnight call answer rate by 150 per cent.
Senator WRIGHT: Sorry, I did not catch that. It has increased their call?
Mr Mackay: Their overnight call answer rate by 150 per cent.
Senator WRIGHT: That ability to put on overnight trained counsellors, is the cost of that being met by Lifeline out of the original funding agreement, or is that an additional amount of money that has been made available to them to help meet this unmet need?
Mr Mackay: My recollection, which I would like to confirm for you on notice, is that it was an additional amount that they proposed to us in negotiating that funding agreement specifically for that purpose.
Senator WRIGHT: It may be, if it was within that funding agreement, is that then within that figure of $25,360,000?
Mr Mackay: Yes, that is right.
Senator WRIGHT: Is the department aware of whether Lifeline has nominated a funding amount that they need overall to ensure that people in crisis or at risk of suicide are assured that their crisis calls will be answered? In other words, to address that rather alarming number of people that are not having their calls answered, that 3500, which is the figure that I have been given. Have they nominated an additional amount that they would need?
Mr Mackay: I do not believe so. In the discussions we have had in negotiating the funding agreement, we have obviously been very focused on the need to increase the call rate, but I am not aware that a goal figure had ever been proposed to us that would equate to a 100 per cent answer rate.
Senator WRIGHT: So, you are not aware of that. Perhaps I can ask you to check that that is accurate and take that on notice and confirm whether that is the case or not.
Ms Halton: Senator, in the context of answering these questions, can we remind ourselves that Lifeline is a voluntary organisation and it has never been expected that government would control their operations or fund everything that they do. We make a contribution to their activity, but they have had a fairly strongly independent view of the role of what the control, how they do things and the fact that they actually fundraise for their activities. I am hearing a tenor of questioning, but I might be misinterpreting you, that sounds like we are responsible for these unanswered calls and we should be finding the money. The conversation we had with them was a bit more nuanced than that. It is a complex area, they are an independent organisation and we do work with them closely, but we cannot take over what they do. We can just work with them as a partner.
Senator WRIGHT: I understand that. But my understanding is that there is government funding and that there is significant unmet need. As I said, a large number of mental health organisations actually have the Lifeline number as the first absolute safety net, first port of call, when there is a crisis. Clearly, if they are not able to meet the need for whatever reason and if their own fund-raising activities are not able to meet the need, there is a responsibility as a community or as a society and it is not unreasonable to think that DoHA would have some role in that. My understanding is that there is a funding shortfall and the unmet need is concerning Lifeline greatly. While I appreciate that their maybe sensitivities, I am interested in the degree to which you are aware that there is this unmet need and how do we fix it.
Ms Halton: The answers vary. I think some of the work on service models is part of this. We all know that, as people become more savvy internet applications and different approaches, there are a number of things that you can look at in this kind of area. As has already been indicated by Mr Mackay, there are things you can do even in terms of their standard model, which is volunteers, to actually boost their capability.
Senator WRIGHT: Absolutely. I am sure they are a willing partner in those sorts of discussions. It is not just about money; it is about strategy and issues. I understand that, but there is money involved in these things as well.
Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Senator Wright has made that point, but I think what is also happening is that you have organisations, which are getting funding, that are actually brokering Lifeline on as part of their suite of services. So, they are getting the money and they are effectively trading-off and Lifeline that is actually delivering the service at the end. That is part of the other side of the coin, which I think is probably partly what Senator Wright is also talking about, which has been put to me as well.