National disability insurance scheme: a weak reform made weaker

South Australian MLC for the Dignity for Disabilities party Kelly Vincent.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) could have been a flagship policy that restored dignity to people with disabilities. Instead, ALP timidity and Coalition intransigence have left Australia with a woefully inadequate policy.

At the July 26 Commonwealth heads of government meeting, the scheme seemed limited to the ALP-held state and territory governments because only they were willing to put forward the necessary funds to top-up the federal funding. By July 28, all states except Western Australia and Queensland had agreed to some financial support for the scheme.

The Coalition should be condemned for failing to practically support the NDIS. But focus on this “debate” has obscured the inadequacy of the NDIS.

The federal government’s commitment of $1 billion over four years is inadequate. It is less than the Productivity Commission proposed last August and will cover only 5% of people that need it.

Last November, PriceWaterhouseCoopers released a report into disability and poverty. It found that Australians with disabilities were more likely to live in poverty than those in any other OECD nation. They were half as likely to be employed as those without disabilities and 45% of people with a disability were living in poverty.

The NDIS was supposed to cover, among other things, the key cost that drives those with disabilities into poverty — long-term care. This is now covered by various schemes under state governments. There is a growing urgency to fix this, because this funding is inadequate and volunteers who are often parents of those with disabilities fill the gap.

There is a real concern that many of these parents will die before a scheme is put in place for their children.

But several key groups won’t necessarily be covered by the NDIS. On August 2, Mental Health Commission chair professor Allan Fels expressed concern that those with chronic mental illness may not be covered.

University of Canberra assistant professors Wendy Bonython and Sarah Ailwood said on The Conversation on May 1 that the NDIS failed to cover people who sustained injuries leading to disabilities in events like car accidents. In the case of such an accident, people would have to rely on the National Injury Insurance Scheme (NIIS).

The NIIS would cover only hospital care – long-term care would have to be covered by successfully suing whoever caused the injury, and them having deep enough pockets to pay the costs.

Further, the initial trial is very limited with few plans to extend the scheme. South Australia, Tasmania, the ACT and the NSW Hunter Valley have been selected as trial sites for the scheme. Trials can be useful in testing public policy, but a policy dedicated to providing basic human rights should not be treated as an optional experiment. It seems a no-brainer that the funding should be provided first and the best delivery method can be what is tested over time.

Instead we have a lottery for services, in which people with disabilities who happen to live in the right areas enjoy better rights than others.

Kelly Vincent, South Australian MLC for the Dignity for Disabilities party, welcomed that South Australia would be one of the test sites, but said on July 25: “[W]ith only zero to five year olds included in the first year, then zero to 13 year olds in the second year, I’m concerned about what will happen to services for adolescents with disabilities once they reach 14 years of age.

“Just because someone turns 14, doesn’t mean they suddenly don’t need a wheelchair for their paraplegia, educational provision for their intellectual disability or behavioural support programs for their autism …

“I would urge the government to at least roll out the program to young South Australians up to and including 18 years of age, so people can remain in NDIS programs until they are transitioning out of school.”

The state Coalition governments deserve condemnation for failing to provide the funds to support the NDIS. But so does Labor, which proposed such a weak version of the reform in the first place. People with disabilities deserve better than this.