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Issue #1640      May 28, 2014

Tense times for people with disabilities

The next phase of the roll-out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is set down for July 1. It will spread from regions in NSW, Victoria, SA and Tasmania to new trial sites in WA, the ACT and Northern Territory. The expansion is taking place to the sound of sharpening federal budget knives and the early stages of the scheme have been clouded by cost blow-out claims and administrative shortcomings. The chatter from conservative forces is all about the “sustainability” of Australia’s current levels of social security spending, including funding of the NDIS.

A report commissioned by the federal government released in January lays out the official concerns. The launch of the NDIS last year was rushed, presumably to suit the political agenda of the then Gillard government. The decision to locate the head office in jobs-starved Geelong has meant most staff are temporary pending permanent recruitment. IT infrastructure is inadequate, questions of eligibility were not sorted and more accurate estimates of the number of people requiring “reasonable and necessary support” were not available.

Staff are highly motivated but bothered by current uncertainty. The National Disability Insurance Agency that administers the scheme is hampered by the same hiring freeze that has hit the rest of the Commonwealth public service.

Costs for the pilots for the scheme were as much as 30 percent above estimates, reaching $46,000 per person. Total cost blow-out for the first six months was $400 million. The full impact of government belt tightening is beginning to show in financial terms as well as in the effectiveness of service delivery.

Senior public servants are worried about future chaos. Retiring Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson slammed the blinkered “do more with less” mentality of successive Labor and Coalition governments. In a speech given in March he warned of the “rising expectation the public has of the government and, in turn, the government has of the public sector. There’s a growing gap between what the community expects from government, and what the government can sustainably provide.”

The public was led to believe the NDIS would essentially fix the woefully under-funded, uncoordinated services to people with disabilities. The promised injection of funds was almost universally welcomed but the mechanism was not fully understood. It is an insurance scheme paying out to providers in a “market” for services. One of the concerns about the roll out in the NT is that such a “market” of suppliers isn’t sufficiently developed. Private service delivery (privatisation) is an assumption of the NDIS. The concept came out of a report from the federal government’s Productivity Commission, which has pursued a consistent neo-liberal political line.

Governments are expecting to have less direct responsibility for providing services. The Public Service Association in NSW has tried to raise awareness of the dangers of the system being implemented following bitter experience with hand-washing state authorities in cases of young people with intellectual disabilities with nowhere to go for suitable accommodation with appropriate levels of care.

“While the full implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme will potentially benefit many in the community who are able to make choices, handing 100 percent of responsibility for disability services to the private sector will disadvantage many others who are unable to make their voice heard, and do not have family support,” the union’s website points out. “There is a huge risk that these people will simply fall through the cracks.”

Sympathy for people with a disability is in short supply in the federal government and its cheer squad in the corporate media. “Slackers and slouch hats” was the headline in last Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph. Murdoch’s Sydney tabloid was pointing out that the number of NSW people on the Disability Support Pension (DSP) now exceeded the number of Australians wounded in war. The odd comparison was made to order for the federal government as it presses ahead with threats of “independent” doctors to review eligibility for the benefit. The government is awaiting the final report on the welfare system from Patrick McClure, the former CEO of Mission Australia who previously headed up Macquarie Capital Funds’ Retirement Villages Group.

The concept of “independent” medical review of recipients of the DSP has split the Australian Medical Association, which gives cautious support, from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), which opposes it.

RACGP president Dr Liz Marles defends the capacity of GPs to accurately assess patients. “I would be surprised if having independent reviews would make much difference,” she said. “In most circumstances … people do actually want to have a job and the self-esteem that goes with that. There are a lot of people who genuinely have mental health issues … and they’re going to struggle to get paid employment.”

Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews is having none of that. While denying that the measure is a cost-cutting one, he obviously anticipates a lot of people being taken off the pension. The under 35s, especially, are in his sights. Treasurer Joe Hockey says he fears the DSP has become “a cargo net into which everyone falls and they never get out”. You could cut the contempt with a knife.

Next article – Containing Russia

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