Scott Morrison must be stopped from downsizing the NDIS

Graphic: Used with permission from Alan Moir, moir.com.au

It should come as little surprise that the federal government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison dislikes the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). After all, the idea of giving money to people based on their disadvantage is simply unacceptable to a government that rates “” so highly.

Subsidies, handouts and rebates are fine: but only when they are distributed to the big end of town, like ,  and mega retailers like , which received $22 million in JobKeeper subsidies, despite making profits of over $400 million during the pandemic.

For those striving to live a reasonable life despite their disability on the other hand, funding needs to be tightly reigned in, to stop the scheme becoming “”.

to the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce on May 6.

While acknowledging that NDIS is “based on the guiding principles that people with a disability have the same rights as all other members of Australian society and should be supported to participate in and contribute to social and economic life to the full extent of their ability”, Morrison went on to claim that “the costs of the NDIS are increasing more than was ever contemplated or expected by those who first framed it”.

Morrison went on to laud the former Minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert, who “commenced a reform agenda” including trialing so-called “independent assessments” — the purpose of which is to drive down the cost of the scheme, by making it harder for applicants to receive NDIS support and reducing payments to those who are already funded (so-called NDIS “participants”).

Independent assessments (described as “robo-planning” by Bruce Bonhady, inaugural chairperson of the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), which administers the NDIS), would force participants and those applying for NDIS support to submit to a 3-hour interview with an allied-health professional (such as a physiotherapist or psychologist).

Based only on their interview, the “independent” assessor would then generate a standardised plan of supports for the participant. Decisions made by the reviewer would not be open to challenge. An NDIS planner would have little room to increase the funding recommended by the assessor.

Independent assessments alone would be expected to from the cost of the scheme over four years.

After considerable blowback from disability advocates, has been forced to suspend the introduction of independent assessments, for now. However, the next federal election is looming.

Morrison’s claim that the cost of NDIS has outstripped expectations is simply disingenuous.

The May 11 Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Productivity Commission revealed as far back as 2017 that the would reach $30 billion by 2024-25. The rising cost of the scheme has, in fact, been known for years.

In 2018, the federal Coalition government abandoned the planned increase in the Medicare levy from 2 to 2.5%, which was intended to increase funding for NDIS. Then federal treasurer Morrison said that owing to the “stronger economy” the government would not need the increased revenue to ensure the future of NDIS.

“That is why we are now in a position to give our guarantee to Australians living with a disability and their families and carers that all planned expenditure on the NDIS will be able to be met in this year’s budget and beyond without any longer having to increase the Medicare levy,”  back then.

So where can those of us with a disability go to cash in that guarantee?

Behind the scenes, federal bureaucrats have been furiously working to redraft the NDIS Act, to increase the powers of the federal minister (NDIS is jointly managed by both state/Territory and federal governments), including the power to raise debts against participants who dare to spend their funds in ways not explicitly sanctioned by NDIA, according to the  April 3-9.

According to Rick Morton, the most sinister aspect of the changes drafted to the NDIS Act involve repealing the requirement that participants are funded for supports considered “reasonable and necessary”.

Currently, Section 34 of the NDIS Act states that participants will be funded for “reasonable and necessary” supports. The supports “ to pursue the goals, objectives and aspirations included in the participants’ statement of goals and aspirations”.

Section 34 is liberally used by NDIS staff to justify their refusal to fund supports requested by participants. Relying on , which stress that supports must be “value for money”, they frequently knock back requests for home modifications (to enable access, or make bathrooms accessible for instance) and assistive technology requests (such as wheelchairs), based on cost.

Nevertheless, successful appeals to the have established the fact that NDIS must consider a participant’s needs individually and that when a support requested can be shown to be “reasonable and necessary”, that NDIS must fully fund it.

: “Now, the term ‘reasonable and necessary’ will describe a participant budget” rather than any specific request for support, which “would allow rationing of support without an avenue for legal challenge”, based on the agency as a whole meeting stricter budgetary controls.

If the Morrison government has its way, NDIS will no longer be expected to fund supports for people with disability to enable them to live a reasonable life. Rather, people with disability will be taught to tailor their expectations of a reasonable life to the confines of what NDIS may easily afford to fund.

Details of funding cuts that people with disability may expect have not yet been made public.

Nevertheless, expect less funding for state-of-the-art assistive technology which, while life changing, is also expensive. Expect fewer hours of funded care: parents, partners and other “informal supports” — who are disproportionately women — will be expected to fill the gap.

The Coalition loved NDIS when it thought they could use it as a cash cow. Stripping $4.6 billion “underspend” from NDIS helped the government make the claim that it had in 2019. 

Now that the scheme has matured and is beginning to fulfill its potential, the government wants to disown it, down-size and destroy it.

Funding people with disability to provide them with the kind of access to society (including jobs) enjoyed by the majority must not become an optional extra. While NDIS has been uneven and, in many cases, inadequate it has nevertheless given hundreds of thousands access to options they didn’t previously have. This alone is worth defending.

Morrison and his ilk must not be allowed to trade away those gains in pursuit of a balanced budget or so-called fiscal responsibility.

[Graham Matthews is a person with disability and has been an NDIS participant since 2017. He is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]