31 Jan 2020

NZ disability rehab centre closure worries clients: 'I don't know where I'll go'

From Checkpoint, 5:15 pm on 31 January 2020

Laura Fergusson Rehabilitation, which has offered care to thousands of New Zealanders with disabilities and those affected by strokes, brain and spinal injuries, is shutting down due to lack of funding.

The non-profit organisation's services in Whanganui, Waikato and Auckland will close by August after the board of Laura Fergusson Trust Inc voted to close the service, as it cannot balance the books.

Laura Fergusson Rehabilitation was set up in 1967 to provide residential facilities for people with disabilities who were otherwise being sent to rest homes.

As well as providing independence for those with disabilities, it grew to offer extensive rehabilitation for people who have suffered strokes and brain or spinal injuries.

But in November last year, the organisation told its clients it would be closing, and transitioning its services.

'A complete shock'

The service helps people in Auckland, Waikato and Whanganui. It is separate from Laura Fergusson Trust Canterbury and Wellington services, which are not shutting down.

It came as a surprise to Auckland man John Wolk who was born with spina bifida, is an amputee, and has had help from the organisation.

"This has come as a complete shock to everybody that's involved. There was no way I knew, not even a hint that things were so bad that they would be closing down," he told Checkpoint.

"It's mind-blowing ... I think it's one of the vital health and disability services Auckland has."

John Wolk was born with spina bifida, is an amputee, and has had help from Laura Fergusson Rehabilitation.

John Wolk has been helped by the organisation since he was a teenager. Photo: RNZ

Wolk uses the service's wheelchair-accessible gym in Auckland most weekdays. He is also a past board member.

As a teenager he spent two years living onsite at Laura Fergusson Rehabilitation's centre, learning skills that have allowed him to live independently for more than 40 years.

About five years ago when his leg was cut off due to septicaemia, the service provided essential help to him again.

"When I went Laura Fergusson after being three months in hospital I had been on my back and semiconscious for most of that," Wolk said.

"I was having to start again, I was like a baby almost, and needing almost 24/7 care with personal care, bathing, toileting and stuff like that. The staff there were doing all that for me.

"Because it was rehabilitation, you set some goals for yourself, and the one goal that I wanted to achieve for whatever period of time I was going to be there ... I wanted to be able to get back in my car and be able to drive again.

"I was admitted to Laura Fergusson in August 2015, and by December I was back in my car and driving. And that was really important and massive for me. They helped me get my freedom back."

Since the news in November of the closure, Wolk said there had been a lot of tears among the service's clients, and questions of where they would get assistance from now on.

"People have got to know, if there's no Laura Fergusson to go to, where can they go?

"Where I might go for a wheelchair-accessible gym facility, for example. I don't know what's available around Auckland ... I don't know what I'll do, where I'll go."

'Transitioning'

"We are transitioning all services," Laura Fergusson Rehabilitation chief executive Heather McLeish said.

"Either finding other places for people to reside, or to have their service provided."

Laura Fergusson Rehabilitation chief executive Heather McLeish and board member Rob Small.

Laura Fergusson Rehabilitation chief executive Heather McLeish and board member Rob Small. Photo: RNZ

Other contracts are being completely sold on to other providers in Auckland, Waikato and Whanganui, she said, and the organisation would no longer be offering services there.

Clients' reaction has been mixed, she said.

"Some are very sad, and that was expected, so we planned for a lot of support onsite and with people.

"We have gone out of the way to have weekend meetings and whatever meetings suit families as well."

There are hundreds of rehabilitation clients who will be affected, and 69 people who will need to find new homes.

McLeish said she had been working with four key providers in Auckland.

"We are giving all clients the choice of at least two other providers, so there is a lot of going and looking and seeing what suits them. A lot of the other providers have houses in the community, where we are on one site."

Problems 'entirely financial'

Laura Fergusson Rehabilitation gets funding through the Ministry of Health and ACC, along with donations and trust fund money from its original benefactors.

Board member Rob Small told Checkpoint it has been an "entirely financial" problem.

"The issue we face is that we're running those services at a loss, and that is not sustainable in the long term.

"We have consistently asked the government to provide more funds for some of these services and in some cases, we haven't taken some clients because we knew it would be unprofitable."

Laura Fergusson Rehabilitation's Greenlane centre in Auckland.

Laura Fergusson Rehabilitation's Greenlane centre in Auckland. Photo: RNZ

The much-lauded 2017 pay equity settlement was one contributor to Laura Fergusson Rehabilitation's demise, McLeish said.

The settlement saw care and support workers' wages increase significantly after it was argued the caregivers, who are mostly female, were being paid less than a male with the same skills in other industries.

"I personally think it was marvellous … people who were very underpaid doing a tremendous and valuable job caring for people - it is great they are getting a living wage," McLeish said.

For the most part, the government adjusted funding to cover the cost of pay equity, she said, but it was the knock-on effect that had caused financial trouble.

"The shortfall is we've had to adjust our other staff salaries to get the relativity. Where I might have had a support worker paid at, say $18 an hour, I had people at $20 an hour but were qualified, so we needed to move them up or we lose them to someone else who pays more."

The changes also did not make a difference for recruitment, McLeish said.
 
"It's still not a field - support workers - that a lot of people will come into. We certainly don't get school leavers, no matter how hard you try.

"I have been utterly optimistic for years that we could pull some services together. The reality is we can't, and the reality is we need to stop and go on with something that is sustainable."

But Laura Fergusson Trust does not know exactly what that future will look like, and what will happen with their significant property assets.

John Wolk is worried the end of Laura Fergusson Rehabilitation could mean people with disabilities being put in rest homes again.  

"I don't want to see the disabled community go backwards. We go back to the days when people were put in age-inappropriate places, and places that cannot and do not cater for specific and special needs of people with disabilities.

"The disabled community has always been the poor cousin, in my view. And it would be nice to think that in the Budget this year we would get a lot more funding aimed specifically at the disabled community."

But for Laura Fergusson Rehabilitation, McLeish said the numbers just did not add up, and after more than five decades, it was over.

"It is sad, but we can't keep a service going for a handful."