WA NDIS under scrutiny from people with disabilities

March 3, 2017
There are some big questions being raised around the administration of the NDIS.

The NDIS bilateral agreement signed on February 1 by the Western Australian and federal governments resulted in a separate NDIS being rolled out in WA. In this version, WA will pay all the administration and operating costs but governance responsibilities will be shared with the Commonwealth.

This is by no means universally accepted as being the best outcome for people with disability in WA. Activists and advocates in the area have, for some time, waged a “No Disadvantage” campaign. They raise a whole swag of concerns about a WA scheme resulting in people with disability in WA being worse off than if they were signed up to the national NDIS.

Sam Connor is a disability and human rights activist who lives in regional WA. She is the former vice president of People with Disability WA, a member of the Bolshy Divas, self describes as a “social media assassin” and uses a wheelchair for mobility.

Green Left Weekly’s Janet Parker spoke with her about the concerns increasingly expressed by people with disability in WA.

* * *

In the past two years, two different systems were trialled in WA — the national scheme and a WA NDIS. An independent assessment of the two was completed to determine which system would prevail in WA. Was the decision that the WA system be implemented beginning on July 1 the recommendation of that review?

The easy answer is we don’t know. The original commitment was that the WA and federal governments would run comparative trials over the course of two years and then the trials would be extended. They told us the “best bits” would be implemented from both schemes.

In reality, an agreement was signed before the completion of the trials to implement a state-run scheme and both the WA and federal governments refused to release the evaluations. They signed the agreement hours before caretaker mode kicked in.

Why do you think the government won’t release the report?

We have no information about either the state and commonwealth evaluations or the Ministerial Advisory Council on Disability (MACD) report that the minister requested after activists made a lot of noise.

We have our doubts, of course, because it is odd that Freedom of Information requests were repeatedly refused on the premise that it would “compromise negotiations”. We also hold concerns that the agency commissioned by the Disability Services Commission (DSC) might not have the independent viewpoint that we would have liked. They’re the agency often chosen to do Commission work and our understanding is that the Commission wrote the brief.

The consultations for the MACD report were held outside the federal trial sites and we’d like to think that wasn’t a deliberate move. But it is of concern that there is little transparency and accountability, let alone the active involvement and engagement of people with disability.

How does this fit with the promise that people with disability will have choice and control of their services and supports? What was the level of involvement/input by people with disability in the design and operation of the scheme leading into and through the trial period? Is there a process of review that will involve people with disability?

“Choice and control” has become the new disability buzz phrase and of course there are different levels of “choice and control”. Our platform for the #nodisadvantage campaign has always been around not being worse off than other Australians, but many current participants are finding it easier to just call for a nationally consistent scheme.

Our choices under the State scheme are limited. For example, there is no funded support coordination; there are issues around plan management; there is a single weekend rate, which means it will cost you more to go to the footy on Sunday; and there are no independent avenues for reviews and appeals.

We hear that the Commission is developing a “co-development process” and this is welcomed by people with disability and their families. But it raises questions about how much involvement we’ve had along the way. There’s a big difference between “consultation” and an active engagement process, where people are involved from the conception of a project all the way through implementation and evaluation. We have no evidence that this has happened.

The NDIS legislation states that there must be a review period and I understand the federal scheme is under review now. It remains to be seen what the state legislation will look like and whether there will be room for change and flexibility.

How do you think people with disability may be disadvantaged by the WA scheme?

The biggest issue for me is the structural composition of the scheme. In the federal NDIS scheme, the contract is between the participant and the government and in the state scheme the contract is between WA NDIS and the provider.

That is an indicator of how much power the big providers have. If you look at the annual reports and then the reviews around how much funding has actually gone to people with disability over the years, there’s a vast divide.

There are also issues around equipment schemes and the idea of having an “equipment holder”, limited choice about in-kind supports and issues with future planning and self-management.

They have clearly responded to some concerns and taken some of the issues on board, but the foundations of the WA scheme are flawed. We fought for certainty and there is no indication that this scheme will not fall over, especially in terms of risk and cost of administration. That is a clear disadvantage for Western Australians with disability.

What people — and politicians — don’t understand is that it’s not just people with disability who might be disadvantaged by this scheme. It will potentially cost taxpayers more than $1 billion a year if their numbers are wrong. WA is the only state to have agreed to bear 75% of the risk. Other states have seriously underestimated the number of people coming into their schemes and the Commonwealth has picked up the tab.

We don’t know where the Disability Services Commission got their figures from because they don’t match the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures or the numbers developed by the Productivity Commission actuaries. If DSC is wrong, either 11,000 people will miss out or WA will have to fund them at $35,000 a pop.

There’s also the unknown cost of building a whole new IT system. The federal system cost $144 million and DSC has estimated theirs will cost about $2 million.

The big question for us is the cost of administration and again, WA is the only state to agree to pay administration costs. They’re planning to employ another 500 local coordinators in 12 regions. Local coordinators are typically paid $76,000–$93,000 a year and then there are the on-costs and wages associated with other staff, including specialist staff. The NDIA actuary says that transition costs are “many, many times more”.

We don’t know how the state can afford it. We hear every day that WA is at risk of going broke and with a no penalty back-out clause in the bilateral agreement, there’s nothing to stop WA going back to the bad old system. Many of us have lived in crisis and poverty for so long that we’re terrified about missing out on something that was supposed to provide certainty for all Australians.

There could be a change of government at the polls on March 11. What has WA Labor said in response to your concerns?

Very little, really. We had a meeting with Opposition Leader Mark McGowan a few weeks ago and he listened to our concerns, but shadow disability minister Stephen Dawson has made few commitments at public events. Dawson has publicly criticised the government’s failure to release the report and has committed to throw open the books for evaluation and conduct a full investigation into the DSC.

The Greens are promising to hold both sides to account. They are well aware they might inherit the scheme, but there is some apprehension that Labor will get in, spend the next four years bagging out the Liberals for its failures, while the Liberal Party will say nothing because it was their scheme. We’ve seen this happen time and time again.

We hope that all parties will stop using disability as a political football and start understanding the concept of accountability, transparency and ethical behaviour. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. A properly constructed and implemented NDIS will pay for itself in ten years.

What should people with disability and/or family members and supporters do if they have concerns about their interactions with WA NDIS or the outcome of their plans?

That’s a really good question, because the two schemes differ wildly in their processes around appeals and complaints.

The WA NDIS operational policies include the right to request a review of “key reviewable decisions” made by local coordinators. If you don’t like the results of the review, you can ask for an appeal. But first it needs to go up the DSC food chain, which will take a while.

Eventually it goes to a panel which involves a “case conference” and finally a “panel hearing”, which reviews the submission and makes a recommendation to the director general of the Commission, which he can confirm or overturn.

There is no real independence of appeal and that is a huge worry. There is also the issue of power imbalances, because if your local coordinator is your go-to person for everything, they have real power and upsetting the apple cart is a good way to make things go badly. That lengthy six-step process is also problematic if you are waiting for essential services or living in crisis.

In comparison, the federal NDIS appeals process has an internal review process and then you apply to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).

There is a clear timeline and the AAT will ask to hold a case conference and try to conciliate the matter. If that is not resolved, they hold a hearing or a fast track hearing. It is an independent and external process and you have the confidence of knowing that senior executives have no undue influence over any decisions made.  

We recommend that people seek out advocacy, but we’re also aware that advocacy funding has recently been slashed in the WA disability sector. Advocacy agencies like Midlas, IDAS and People With Disabilities WA are overrun with requests for assistance and we don’t anticipate that will slow down any time soon with a full roll out in WA. Regional advocacy has always been limited and there are big concerns about the defunding of systemic advocacy.

The biggest thing people can do prior to March 11 is make their voices heard. Turn up to the information sessions that DSC is holding or the political meetings that all candidates are holding and tell them your story. It doesn’t matter if it’s in favour of the national or state scheme, whether you’ve never been funded, whether you’re living in crisis or have no idea about services in our state.

If enough of us tell them over and over, they’ll begin to get an understanding that this isn’t some WA fringe issue, it’s about the biggest disability reform in Australia.

We get one shot at this and it’s important to get it right. All we want is to have what we need to be who we are and to live, play and work on the same equal playing field as other Australians.

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