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28 April 2021


SUBJECTS: Morrison Government’s plan for ‘RoboPlan’ Independent Assessments in the NDIS

FRAN KELLY, HOST: The National Disability Insurance Scheme is one of the most expensive programs in the country. It supports more than 400,000 people every year at an annual cost to the budget of 23 billion dollars. But the Federal Government is keen to try and rein in the costs, arguing the scheme is blowing out and has to be sustainable for the long run. Bill Shorten is Labor's Shadow spokesperson for the NDIS. He's in our Parliament House studio. Bill Shorten, welcome back to Breakfast.
KELLY: You’re going to address the National Press Club today, where you’ll say that the ongoing existence of the NDIS is at risk from gross neglect and direct attack from this Government. What do you mean? How’s the Government directly attacking the NDIS?
SHORTEN: Well, the Government is trying to restrict people with disabilities’ access to the scheme. To be eligible for the NDIS, you have to have a profound and severe disability. But what the Government's been caught doing in the last few months is constructing fences and padlocks for which people with disability will have to negotiate to be able to access the scheme. Now, their latest measure is to create what they call Compulsory Independent Assessments. What they want people to do is submit to these Compulsory Independent Assessments - rather than have their own treating experts and allied health professionals reports relied upon, they’re now, the Government, wants to put all the power into an interview with a stranger over two hours, where in fact the whole chance of being on the Scheme will hang or fall based upon the two hour interview. And that's got a lot of people anxious. And in particular, Fran, a lot of people think, why do we have to re-prove our disability yet again? The whole 430,000 people are going to be re-interviewed under the Government's proposal.
KELLY: I can understand the anxiety, but is there anything really that wrong with the idea of an independent assessment for people who's, obviously their expertise you'd imagine would be in doing this kind of assessment, if it makes for a more targeted funding of this program, which we want to be, you know, fairer. We want to be robust. We want a level playing field for it, don’t we?
SHORTEN: Sure, everyone wants fairness. Everyone wants to make sure that people who are eligible are getting the support they do. But this isn't happening in a vacuum. We've expanded the scheme to 433,000 participants. These are people with severe and profound disabilities, people with conditions from acquired brain injury, to quadriplegia, to foetal alcohol syndrome to severe autism. And we've already had a process to get these people here. It is profoundly insulting to say to 430,000 people who've already qualified, that somehow there's a question mark. I mean if you're blind, you're already blind, you haven't been cured. If you're deaf, you're deaf.
KELLY: I understand.
SHORTEN: If you have severe autism - so what is the case for the government to re-interview everyone Fran? They haven't proven there's been mass rorting.
KELLY: Well, the case put by the former minister, Stuart Robert, who was the minister in charge, said he took up this suggestion, this recommendation of individual assessments, because the system currently favours those with means to put in a comprehensive application with lots of recommendations from doctors and other health professionals. And we've spoken to people, NDIS recipients, on this program before who've acknowledged the complexity of the application system and the advantage they've had because they could manage it for their for their kids, for instance, better than some others have. So, it's it is acknowledged from some that, you know, if you are more able to do that, you are likely to get a better outcome.
SHORTEN: Sure, there is a problem that people who may be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, people whose first language is not English, people from very disadvantaged backgrounds, mightn't be able to deal with the red tape and mightn't be able to access the Scheme. But the answer isn't a blanket re-interviewing of everyone. That's why I don't believe Stuart Robert, and that's why he was pretty keen to get out of the portfolio. The reality is that if people are experiencing equity issues to access the Scheme, put more NDIS staff out into the regions, have more people up in the Northern Territory talking to First Australians, have more people preparing language and being able to talk to people whose first language is not English. It isn't to just make the high jump bar harder for everyone.
KELLY: Sure. The Minister, the new Minister, Linda Reynolds, who's just taken over, has actually come in and put the plans on hold until a trial is finished of this Independent Assessment system and she has further consultation with the sector, with those involved in the trial. That’s – do you welcome that, does that suggest to you the government is listening to feedback from NDIS participants?
SHORTEN: I welcome the scheme being put on hold as a first step. But the very fact that she's put it on hold seems to confirm my criticism of what Minister Robert was doing, because she, too, has taken the same action and reaction that we've all had.
KELLY: Ok, so we are where we are, is that a good point now, and are you confident the Minister will listen?
SHORTEN: Well, no, I'm not. There's a test for Minister Reynolds and hopefully she can use this portfolio to redeem herself, but they haven't cancelled the contracts. We'll put it another way. Did you know Fran, and did the listeners to the show know, that the government's already issued contracts worth 339 million dollars to roll out these RoboPlanning, independent compulsory process? 339 million dollars of contracts issued. Those contracts are still -
KELLY: Already issued, before the trial is over?
SHORTEN: Yeah. That's why excuse my scepticism, but they issued the contracts before the trials had been concluded. So, doesn’t that show you?
KELLY: Are they the contracts to run the trials?
SHORTEN: No, they're the contracts to run the Independent Assessment, which the government's pretending are on hold. So we say if you're fair dinkum, cancel the contracts, because how on earth, Fran, can you issue a contract of 339 million dollars of taxpayer money and then say, oh, but we're going to wait and see what the trials tell us?
KELLY: Okay. Alright.
SHORTEN: So how on earth do they get to keep this contract? It’s just, you and I both know, it's the proverbial cart before the horse.
KELLY: Just before I leave this issue about the cost, 23 billion dollars a year, it's growing by 23 per cent. And the figures I've seen annually over the past two years predicted the numbers of recipients will grow from 430,000 to 530,000 in the next two years. It doesn't sound sustainable, does it?
SHORTEN: Well, sorry, I don't buy that. I mean, if you want to have sustainable, don't give JobKeeper to the top end of town and the Australia Club and Gerry Harvey and Solomon Lew, that's not sustainable, giving money away. But this is a different kettle of fish altogether. This is about people with disabilities. If we have 530,000 people with profound and severe disability, then they have a right to access a generous safety net. I mean, we can’t -
KELLY: And does that mean it's likely we will increase our NDIS contribution to pay for that?
SHORTEN: No, I think there's probably benefits to reforming the back office of the NDIS. I think that there is some cases of criminal gangs and fraud. I think rather than padlocking the front of the NDIS and stopping deserving people receiving reasonable packages of support, perhaps they could cut the provider red tape. Perhaps they could make it easier to register, for new service providers to register. Perhaps the NDIA could show market leadership and stewardship rather than being hands off and not dealing with delay blockages in the rollout of disability housing, with thin markets in regional areas where there are not enough service providers. There are ways to improve the NDIS Fran, which don't involve stopping legitimate Australians with permanent and severe disability, profound disability, accessing modest levels of support.
KELLY: Is there any proof of significant rorting of this system?
SHORTEN: Well, there's some and you know, please tune in to my National Press Club debate today, but we met with John Higgins, former policeman, many years of service in the police who became a fraud investigator at the NDIS. And he just basically made it clear, and this is a matter of record and the gentleman's done public interviews, he said that the fraud area was underfunded and he said that the NDIA, rather than police this area, accepted an attrition rate of money and they would just, if money was fleeced out of disabled people's accounts, they would just replace the money.
KELLY: So, the agency has to do better.
SHORTEN: Yeah, it does. It can't just be an agency which is about cost cutting. It's got to - it is the big dog of disability. It is the leader. It is the pack leader here. And it needs to plan for workforce. It needs to resolve the bureaucratic delays. It needs to put more focus not on making it harder for people to access the Scheme but making sure that the plans work for people.
KELLY: Bill Shorten, just finally on another issue, we learnt last week that fewer than seven per cent of people with disability and also disability workers, have received a COVID shot, despite them being in the priority one A-list. Health department officials and some epidemiologists say the Government was right to prioritise people of aged care above people with disability. We heard from Minister Richard Colbeck earlier that aged care will be completed within the next few weeks. I think people with disability, too, may be on that time frame. I'm not sure. But are you confident now that the Government is catching up with the rollout of 1A, to people in aged care and disability care?
SHORTEN: No, not yet. I've spoken to plenty of people who work in disability and participants and family members of participants. Let's face it, the vaccine rollout has been a mess. People were promised to be prioritised. The thing about COVID is that for many of us, other than the periodic shutdowns like in Perth, we're getting back on with our lives. But if you're a person stuck in a wheelchair, with reduced immunities, COVID is still trapping you in your house until you and your workers and carers can get the vaccine. It is a shemozzle. I mean, when Biden’s shipping vaccines overseas now because he's immunised most of America, and he only got elected on January 20th, then it's just it is just a shemozzle. And for a moment, let's forget the politics. Anyone in charge of this vaccine rollout, be it Liberal or Labor Government nationally, deserves a kick up the backside for their slack performance in this area. People are still trapped in their homes because of a lack of vaccination.
KELLY: Bill Shorten, thanks very much for joining us.
SHORTEN: Thank you.
KELLY: Bill Shorten is the Shadow Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme. He'll be giving that speech on the NDIS at the National Press Club today.