Minister for Families and Social Services Paul Fletcher announced on September 26 that the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) had reached the milestone of registering its 200,000th participant. The number of NDIS participants is predicted to grow to about 460,000 by 2020.
That same day, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the final figures for the 2017-18 federal budget showed the budget deficit had been reduced to $10.1 billion. “The single biggest saving was the lower than expected numbers of participants entering the NDIS,” the SMH reported.
The boon to government coffers amounted to $4 billion in just one year.
The SMH report matches with those of people with disabilities being refused entry to the scheme, often for spurious reasons.
On September 18 last year, the Guardian Australia reported that people with disabilities such as schizophrenia, bipolar, depressive disorders and severe anxiety were regularly being denied access to the scheme.
The ABC News website reported on July 26 that Jeremy Hawkes, a man who had featured in the advertisements for the rollout of NDIS and who lives with Parkinson’s disease and chronic pain from a work-related spinal injury, was refused admission to NDIS.
ABC comedy show Tonightly with Tom Ballard featured an interview with actor and comedian Adam Bowes on August 29, who was initially denied access to NDIS, even though he is a bilateral leg amputee. Bowes recounted being told: “There’s not enough evidence that you have a disability.”
While his application was approved on the second attempt, it took 15 months before his request to purchase a wheelchair was funded by NDIS.
Moreover, on May 15, Guardian Australia reported on findings from the Commonwealth ombudsman that showed requests for plan reviews taking months to action. Unscheduled reviews are the only means by which participants may seek changes to their NDIS plan.
The ombudsman found that, as of February 2018, NDIS had a backlog of 8100 reviews. It was receiving about 620 new review requests a week and was only able to process a fraction of that.
The problems with NDIS go right to the core. It has been nobbled by neoliberal funding priorities.
The federal Coalition government funds NDIS with an eyedropper. The number of staff employed by the NDIS has been capped at 3188 for the 2018-19 financial year, only rising to 3400 in the 2020-21 financial year when NDIS will have grown to service more than 460,000 people.
The system relies on a rising numbers of contractors, including for the NDIS call centre, which has been outsourced to Serco, a company famed for its human rights abuses.
NDIS was established as a disability marketplace. It was touted as being “participant led”, with individual participants empowered to seek the best results by finding the most appropriate provider for their needs.
NDIS funds individual participants for a certain number of hours of service, depending on the participant’s requirements, as judged by NDIS. The participant is free to choose any provider and prices charged by providers are regulated by NDIS.
However, from its very inception NDIS was intended to put downward pressure on the cost of disability services to government.
While the idea of reducing the cost of disability services might, on the face of it, seem appealing, the result will not necessarily be in the interest of people with a disability. Downward pressure on the price of disability services can only come at the expense of providers themselves, or indeed their employees.
Currently, providers are not expected to compete on price, but in its publication NDIS market approach: statement of opportunity and intent, NDIS says: “In the long-term, the NDIS will not set prices to the extent it does now and will instead allow the marketplace to determine the price of supports…
“Already in parts of the NDIS market, self-managing participants, as empowered consumers, are seeking value for money — which is driving competitive pricing, greater flexibility and a quality workforce.”
Pitting participants against carers
What the NDIS statement does not say is that lower prices inevitably mean lower wages. The only way “empowered consumers” can drive “greater flexibility” is by forcing individual workers to bid down their wages.
The Newcastle Herald noted as early as March 25 last year that, “terms such as ‘flexibility’ and ‘efficiency’ have one meaning for employers, and a very different set of implications for workers, who may have very little in the way of ‘choice’ when it comes to accepting these new ‘flexible’ agreements.”
Deregulation of prices puts the whip in the hands of the bosses, and sets NDIS participants’ interests against those of their carers and providers.
While deregulation may make disability services cheaper, it is unlikely to be disabled people who pocket the extra money. Rather, participants will be allocated smaller packages and told to take their money to the market and negotiate the best deal they can.
Already, before the price of disability services is deregulated, there is growing evidence of super-exploitation, particularly of lower-skilled workers in the disability sector.
Disability bosses are demanding increasing “flexibility”, which it is feared may lead to the introduction of zero-hour contracts, where a worker’s hours can be reduced from full-time to zero without notice.
Disability advocates are concerned that reduced conditions for disability workers may place disabled people at greater risk.
While Labor has pledged to abolish the NDIS staff cap, there is no evidence that it opposes the deregulation of NDIS pricing. It was, after all, the Julia Gillard Labor government that introduced NDIS as a market-based system.
People with a disability and their supporters need to continue the campaign for a fully-funded, responsive and transparent disability funding model; one that fulfils the needs of both participants and disability workers.
Neither Labor nor the Coalition are going to provide that without a serious fight.