State failing to invest in disability services, says COPE chief
Taoiseach defends funding levels as FF leader says hundreds are going without help
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: sharp clashes with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar after COPE Foundation warned it needs €120 million in additional funding. Photograph: James Forde for The Irish Times
Funding for the COPE Foundation, which has warned that it needs €120 million in extra funding over the next four years, has risen by more than a quarter in the last three years, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.
The warning from COPE, which provides supports for people with intellectual disabilities, led to sharp clashes on Wednesday between Mr Varadkar and the leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, who complained that hundreds of people are going without help.
Funding for COPE, said Mr Varadkar, has gone from €44.13 million in 2016 to €53.1 million in 2017 and to €55.6 million in 2018. Last year, it was increased to €56.1 million. In all, the increases come to a 26 per cent rise.
Extra State spending does not always result in extra services, he accepted, because inflation and pay increases can eat into the increased budgets, he told Mr Martin.
“But, in general, taxpayers expect that a significant increase in funding should result in an increase in services and the quality of services, even if it is not the same level as the increase,” Mr Varadkar said.
Disability spending by the State next year will exceed the €2 billion mark for the first time, he said, though negotiations on how this will be shared “are only beginning”.
However, the chief executive of COPE, Sean Abbott, said a failure by the State to invest in disability services is forcing voluntary agencies to refuse help to people who desperately need it.
The Taoiseach’s declaration that COPE has received a 26 per cent increase in recent years is true, he said, but Mr Varadkar had omitted to say that this went mainly on pay restoration after years of cuts.
Explaining its demand for an extra €34 million annually, Mr Abbott said 400 children are currently on its lists waiting for autism assessment; some of them have been waiting for four years.
“I can’t speak for other voluntary service providers, but I know from speaking to them that they are in a similar situation to ourselves, with long waiting lists for their services with people sometimes waiting for years,” he said.
A further 1,350 children who have been assessed require specialist intervention, he said, while 174 adults needing a residential place have nowhere to go. Nearly 650 other adults need other types of help.
“We are extremely grateful for all the funds we currently receive from both the HSE and the general public. However, in the 30 years that I have worked with Cope Foundation, I have never experienced delays this bad,” said Mr Abbott.
He said that the crisis is a combination of chronic underfunding during the economic crash years, coupled with growing numbers of children and adults seeking their support and services.
Increases in demand
COPE’s service has expanded over the last 15 years, but exponential increases in demand are not being satisfied. In 2004, COPE helped 1,600 people with roughly 690 staff on a €40 million budget.
By 2009, it was helping 1,700 people, with approximately 840 staff on a budget of €57 million. “But then the economic crash happened and by 2009, we were supporting 2,350 people with 873 WTE staff on a budget of €55 million and we’re now catering for the same number of people with 1,100 WTE staff on a €60 million budget,” said Mr Abbott.
I have worked with COPE Foundation for 38 years and I have never had to refuse so many people our services or support
The number of people with autism is rising. Waiting times are now so long that some children can turn 18 without ever being assessed, or getting the specialist intervention they need.
“We have had a major lack of investment in services for a number of years and the result is extensive waiting lists for residential services, respite and home supports, assessments and intervention for children with ASD.
“I have worked with COPE Foundation for 38 years and I have never had to refuse so many people our services or support. Even in the 1980s when times were hard, we didn’t have to refuse as many people.”
Mr Abbott said the HSE, which provides over 90 per cent of its €60 million a year budget is well aware of the crisis that the charity is facing, but the HSE has no extra funding to meet the €34 million annual shortfall COPE faces.
“It’s not in our nature to say ‘no’ to people but we have no alternative. If we didn’t say ‘no’, the other option would be to spend money that we haven’t got and then risk the whole service and we don’t want to do that.”