Shining spotlight on the neediest – Opinion/editorial – Shining spotlight on the neediest
December 09, 2008

The vast majority of alcohol, drug and gambling addicts aren’t getting the help they need. Half the people in hospitals with mental illness could be released if only community supports were available. Funding for special education in schools has gone up more than 50 per cent, but only 5 per cent more children are enrolled in the programs.

Auditor General Jim McCarter’s report, released yesterday, paints a grim picture of a province that is failing some of its neediest citizens.

While all Ontarians rely on Queen’s Park to provide the services they need, it’s imperative the government care for those who can’t care for themselves. This report shows that isn’t happening.

The province is spending $130 million to fight addictions. That money helps 117,000 people – about 10 per cent of those in need. Many don’t get help because they don’t ask for it. Others, because there’s no program where they live or the waiting list is months long.

More must be done to identify those suffering from addictions and to reduce program wait times. A youth needing residential treatment for substance-abuse waits, on average, more than two months, the report found. Once an addict agrees to get help it must come quickly.

McCarter found some discrepancies between government funding and the actual services provided. They must be addressed. And if more dollars are needed to fund programs adequately, they should be made available. With alcohol and drug addictions costing an estimated $8 billion a year in increased health and criminal justice costs and decreased productivity, it makes good economic sense to help addicts get back on their feet.

Since the late 1970s the province has sought to move people with mental illnesses out of institutions and into the community. It’s better for them and cheaper for taxpayers. Ontario has done well on the first part – releasing people from institutions – but a terrible job of funding the community services vital to their success.

Many people with serious mental illness are “not receiving an appropriate level of care” in the community, McCarter’s report notes.

This creates a “revolving door” of people released without sufficient support to take medications or care for themselves. They wind up back in a mental health facility.

It also means others are forced to stay in hospital because there’s no space in community programs for them.

School grants for special education have risen 54 per cent in the last six years to more than $2 billion but there’s little evidence of how that money is being spent. There’s some improvement in test scores, which is encouraging, but the province needs to do more to ensure that this funding is reaching students in need.

As in past annual reports, McCarter noted “there was insufficient oversight to ensure that Ontarians were getting the public services they need and value for their tax dollars.”

It’s always troubling when the government isn’t sure how its money is being spent. It’s even more troubling when it affects the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens.

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