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‘Vandalism’: Uproar over NDIS changes, explained

Jessica Yun
·7-min read
Left: NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds; right: Shadow Minister of Government Services Bill Shorten. (Source: Getty)
Left: NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds; right: Shadow Minister of Government Services Bill Shorten. (Source: Getty)

If you’ve been hearing a lot about the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) in the news, it’s because the Government is planning on introducing something called ‘independent assessments’.

The reform has become hugely contentious and sparked a lot of backlash, with Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten fronting the National Press Club on Wednesday to speak out against the moves.

But he isn’t the only one. Here’s what the ‘independent assessments’ are, and why they’re causing such an uproar.

What exactly is the Government planning to do?

The Federal Government wants to introduce mandatory “independent assessments”, which will see independent health experts – whom the participants are not familiar with – use standardised ‘tools’ to determine a scheme participant’s abilities and capabilities, and subsequently the amount of funding they receive from the NDIS.

“The recommended tools meet certain criteria, are focused on functionality and are disability-neutral, so can be used across all disability-types,” the NDIS said in a statement.

The assessments will “take around three hours” and be asked questions about their lives and how they handle ordinary tasks.

“The assessor will ask you questions about your life and what matters to you, and ask to see how you approach some everyday tasks. They will work through some standardised assessment tools with you, based on your age or disability,” according to the NDIS.

Currently, there are already ‘functional assessments’ in place, but at the individual’s own expense. The change will mean the NDIS pays for it instead, and they’re framing it as making the scheme fairer and cheaper for participants.

“Not all people with a permanent disability are eligible for the NDIS. Independent assessments will help determine the significance of a person’s disability to help the NDIA make fair and consistent decisions on who is eligible for the Scheme,” the NDIS website states.

The potential reform would affect the roughly 400,000 people currently on the NDIS scheme, as well as every new participant.

When will this start?

For new participants, independent assessments will be folded into the process of accessing the scheme by “mid-2021”, the website states.

But people who already have NDIS plans will see these independent assessments as “part of our normal plan review process” by the “end of 2021”.

Significant life events, like starting school or entering the workforce, can see participants referred for independent assessments, as well as people wanting longer plans, needing their access reassessed, or preparing to transition off the NDIS.

But recent comments from the new NDIS Minister, Linda Reynolds, have thrown a spanner into the works. 

She said the reforms will be put on hold while she listens to key associations and stakeholders pushing back against the changes, arguing that participants will be worse off.

So what’s all the fuss about?

More than 100 various disability groups have spoken out against the changes, warning that the assessments will adversely impact Australians’ access to funding.

They’re also arguing that the changes haven’t undergone rigorous testing, that the consultation process has been rushed, and that people with disabilities' needs haven’t been addressed.

An open letter, signed by more than 100 signatories including People with Disability Australia, the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, National Disability Services, and Inclusion Australia, stated: “Based on the information released by the NDIA, we are concerned that a desire to cut costs is the main motivation for the hurried introduction of these reforms.”

“We cannot support legislative or operational changes which we believe undermine the intent of the scheme.”

The chief architect and former chairman of the NDIS has also described the changes as “robo-planning” and argued it will “blow up” the scheme.

"Independent assessments are not independent," Professor Bruce Bonyhady told a Parliamentary inquiry on Friday.

"Robo-planning will blow up the NDIS. And it will also blow up the vision for this scheme to be there for all Australians."

A Parliamentary inquiry into the independent assessment is currently underway, with a view to look at the modelling, justifications and resources needed to perform the assessments, as well as the quality assurance of assessors, the appropriateness of the tools and the implications for access to the NDIS.

Advocates for First Nations people have also fronted the parliamentary inquiry to say that the independent assessments would see the nuances of an individual’s medical history lost, and would perpetuate systemic racism.

On Tuesday, Alice Springs-headquartered Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council disability team manager Kim McRae told the inquiry on Tuesday the model was not culturally appropriate in Indigenous contexts.

“[Indigenous] people will not respond to questions that they think are rude or inappropriate or make people feel ashamed or embarrassed, particularly not when it's a stranger asking those questions,” she said.

“There are also areas, like sexuality or toileting, that a man cannot ask a lady about - that’s completely, entirely inappropriate and very, very rude and confronting - and vice versa.”

Disability advocates are also concerned about the difficulty of appealing decisions made by independent assessors, with Administrative Appeals Tribunal figures revealing that appeals related to the NDIS scheme in 2019-20 financial year ballooned by more than 700 per cent compared to 2016-17.

On Wednesday, Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten used an address to the National Press Club to say the promise of the NDIS had been “betrayed” and slammed the Liberal Government for what he said was “cavalier vandalism” of the scheme.

Echoing Bonyhady’s sentiments, Shorten said: “The Morrison Government want the 430,000-plus Australians who have already proven, supported by expert medical evidence, that they are sufficiently disabled to be on the NDIS to do it all again – to reapply and try to re-qualify for the scheme under their new guidelines. It is privatisation by stealth,” he said.

“So-called independent assessments are not independent at all. They are Robo-Planning from the Government who brought us Robodebt, and as with Robodebt, Robo-Planning is based on flawed mathematical formulas.

“There is no evidence independent compulsory assessments are a good idea. It has been constructed in a black box. And the disability community fear it and detest it legitimately.”

How have the NDIS and the Government responded?

Following the intense backlash, Reynolds has said she will put on hold plans to roll out the independent assessments until she has further consulted with the disability sector.

She’ll meet with her state and territory counterparts on Thursday to discuss the changes.

"Any future reforms must continue to deliver on the promise of the NDIS: to provide people with a permanent and significant disability with true choice and control over a flexible support package to achieve their goals,” she said.

"And this is what independent assessments are designed to do. I'll be closely assessing the independent assessment trial outcomes before any enabling legislation is taken forward.

"The purpose of the trial is to understand what is working and what needs to be improved."

Meanwhile, the NDIS has issued media releases addressing the backlash and seeking to reassure the public.

“Comments around the safety of participants are unfounded and could cause unwarranted concern amongst Australians with disability and their families,” NDIS stated on Tuesday.

“Free independent assessments are one element of a program of improvements that will create a fairer and simpler NDIS.

“Independent assessments will also help reduce inequity in funding and ensure all eligible Australians with disability, irrespective of their individual circumstances, can apply for and use the NDIS.”

Next steps

Though the proposals are on hold, eight contractors have already been chosen to carry out the independent assessments, with $319 million offered across three years.

But Shorten wants Reynolds to go one step further: “If you’re fair dinkum, cancel the contracts,” he told ABC radio on Wednesday.

While submissions to the inquiry have closed, there are more hearings scheduled, with the next one to be held in Hobart on Friday.

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