Laura Fergusson Trust: Petition launched to save ‘vital’ disability rehab centre as mystery continues over closure

A petition has been launched to save a “vital” Auckland disability facility closed last year under a cloud of secrecy, leaving residents, former patients and donors outraged.

Advocates have accused the Laura Fergusson Trust, which operates the Greenlane facility, of acting in poor faith deciding to close without speaking publicly about its reasons, despite taking in millions of dollars in public donations over decades.

The Trust refused to comment to the Herald, but a medical expert who has provided them advice said the core issue was a funding imbalance, with donations declining and Government contracts remaining static while healthcare costs rose dramatically.

Meanwhile, the mystery deepens with the Ministry of Health denying it was ever approached about funding issues at the centre, and even saying the Trust refused a meeting with director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

In 2016 Sophia Malthus became a tetraplegic aged 19 after falling from a horse in a workplace accident.

She could have been placed in a rest home for rehabilitation, surrounded by people four times her age with vastly different experiences.

Instead, she was able to secure a place at the Laura Fergusson Rehabilitation centre, a kind of “halfway house” built especially for people with disabilities.

She had her own unit with a kitchen, attentive nurses, physios and a doctor, all to help her as she adjusted to her new reality and a suitable place was found for her outside.

Best of all though, she was surrounded by others going through similar experiences.

“It is such a vital centre for someone like me, who at 19 recovering from those injuries being put in a rest home would have affected not just my physical but mental health.

“At the centre I was surrounded by younger people with similar injuries and peoplespecialised to help you.”

But she fears that experience will be forever lost for other young people, with the facility – which provided rehab services and respite care – shutting down in March last year amid a shroud of secrecy.

Those living at the Greenlane facility had all been rehomed and were happy, the Trust said.

But advocates say that is far from the case, with many former residents – some with severe mental challenges who had been there years, now in rest homes ill-equipped to support them.

They also fear the $40m property in Greenlane could be sold or converted into a rest home.

Malthus had become a member of the charity to try and understand reasons for the closure and advocate for it to remain open, but said she’d been bullied through the process.

Others had been denied membership.

Out of sheer frustration at what she says is a lack of transparency from the Trust, Malthus has launched a petition to illustrate how important the centre is to the disabled community.

“I just don’t think it is appropriate that people with disabilities like me get put in rest homes for their care.”

And Malthus has the backing of local MP and Act Party leader David Seymour.

He’d received reports from residents upset at being moved on, along with benefactors who’d helped fundraise “a huge amount of money” over the years and were “dumbfounded” by the closure.

“It was a unique place in that it offered rehabilitation, and a place for people with disabilities not at a stage in life where they wanted to be at a retirement village.

“Through this petition the board will be left under no illusion the strength of community feeling about it and their investments in it.”

University of Auckland health specialist Des Gorman, an expert in health system design and funding who has been working with the Trust and said he believed it had no choice but to close.

“The situation is sad. Everyone involved is losing here. No one likes the current situation.

“But essentially all of the facility’s services were being purchased [by public agencies] at below cost price.

“It is a service New Zealand needs, but needs to be funded in a sustainable way.”

With donations also declining he advised the board to pursue an outcomes-based model rather than funding upfront per patient based on estimated needs, however was told the Ministry of Health rejected this.

The closure came after the Trust’s 2019 financial statements showed a $570,000 spend on consultants, including a $94,000 payment for a report by the trust’s chairman Chris O’Brien.

O’Brien’s report, and a separate report by PWC Wellington, which is likely to have been a factor in the centre’s closure, have not been released.

The Trust board and executive refused repeated requests from the Herald for comment.

However in O’Brien’s report to the trust’s recent AGM, losses of over $1m and $2.4m were reported for the past two financial years respectively.

O’Brien wrote: “The Trust couldn’t continue under the then-current business model which was unsustainable in the medium and longer terms”.

In a statement, a Ministry of Health spokeswoman said the Trust had never requested any further funding to enable it to continue operating, nor had it offered any.

But in the report O’Brien said the Trust had been in a “more than decade-long battle” with successive governments over its “deficient” funding model.

This funding was provided based on a needs assessment in advance of treatment. However, services actually required often turned out to be far greater.

Crown funding also did not cover costs of maintaining and replacing buildings, new equipment and technology, nor keep up with rising wage costs.

O’Brien said while the Ministry reported no record of them reporting underfunding issues “we have vigorously communicated the inadequacy of funding to successive governments and various agencies over an extended period”.

He noted all the Trust’s clients and staff had been looked after with alternative solutions found.

They had also initiated consultation on the future of the Trust’s work, which O’Brien said “will provide assistance to disabled people” in accordance with its founding principles.

Gorman said part of the problem was the Trust being funded by public agencies used to running at deficits and not understanding the profit-driven private sector.

He also disputed the assertion from the Ministry it had no record of further funding requests, saying he’d seen correspondence depicting otherwise.

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