Linda Reynolds has confirmed the government will proceed with “some form” of independent assessments for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, after announcing a “pause” that raised advocates’ hopes the policy could be scrapped.
Fronting a Senate estimates hearing on Monday, Reynolds, the new NDIS minister, and the NDIS agency’s chief executive, Martin Hoffman, were also grilled about a so-called “razor gang” aimed at slowing spending on packages and participant numbers.
Reynolds gave a lengthy speech that sounded the alarm about the financial sustainability of the scheme, likely placing her on a collision course with many disability advocates early into her tenure as minister.
Asked about her “pause” to the rollout of the compulsory independent assessments, which were due to begin in July, Reynolds said there would be a “pause for several months … to get the construction right”.
“I have been very, very clear today and previously [それ] in some form we must have functional independent assessments. What form they take is very much the subject of consultation.”
Disability advocates, who fear the policy is aimed at cutting funding package sizes and participant numbers, had believed the “pause” could pave the way for the policy to be scrapped.
The Greens senator Jordon Steele-John questioned how the minister’s consultation could be “authentic” if there was no possibility the government would scrap the policy.
“Minister, the entire disability community is united in opposition to the implementation of independent assessments," 彼は言った.
Under the proposed changes to the eligibility assessments process, participants would undergo an interview with a government-contracted allied health professional instead of submitting reports from their own treating specialists.
Guardian Australia reported last month that secret government documents from last year showed it expected the introduction of independent assessments would save the budget $700m and lead to smaller funding packages “on average”.
But officials denied knowledge of that figure on Monday and Reynolds said it was not a number that had appeared in her briefings so far as the minister.
The documents from last year, ガーディアンが見た, state clearly that the introduction of “independent functional assessments” for planning and access decisions would “reduce the forward estimates by $0.7 billion”.
Hoffman was also grilled about the creation of the secretive sustainability action taskforce which aims to slow spending on participants and funding and was revealed in leaked documents last month.
He said its creation was part of the “business as usual” activities of the agency. The focus would be the “clarification of reasonable and necessary”, a reference to the legal standard that determines whether a person can receive NDIS funding for a particular support.
In response to questions from the Labor senator Nita Green, Hoffman would not say whether the agency planned to tell the public about the taskforce. But said he believed the participants understood the scheme needed to be sustainable.
In her first public comments as the minister, Reynolds made clear she believed that the scheme was growing at an unsustainable rate.
“It is a fact that today the costs of the NDIS are increasing far more significantly, year on year, than was ever expected," 彼女は言いました.
Participant packages were growing by 12.5% per annum, which was “unsustainable over the longer term”.
Reynolds also said spending on participant support was expected to hit $25bn by 2021-22, more than the estimated $22bn. This was despite forecasts that an extra 80,000 people were still expected to join the scheme.
In comments likely to rile some advocates, Reynolds pointed to data showing that since 2017 there had been a “significant drop” in people classified in the scheme as “high functioning” and a “significant increase” in those who were “low functioning”.
“If you think about the implications of that, it’s quite alarming,” Reynolds said. “Is the NDIS actually making people less functional over time? So those are one of the many questions we need to have a look at … to work out what is happening and how it becomes sustainable.”
Reynolds’ decision to be more upfront about the government’s financial sustainability concerns comes as the agency also pursues major changes to the NDIS Act that are expected to place boundaries on the supports that can be funding by the scheme.
Reynolds said she believed “no two people” had the same “definition of what reasonable and necessary actually is … And I believe this is something we now address.”
The agency recently asked an external research company to conduct market research that found the agency should be more transparent about “scheme sustainability”, even if it was unpopular.
Reynolds and Hoffman also faced questions about the death of Liam Danher, 23, who reportedly died alone in February in his bed after a seizure. He had been denied a seizure mat by the agency, the Australian reported last month.
Reynolds and Hoffman told the hearing the agency had offered its condolences to the family, but said there was no evidence there was a causal link between the denial of the seizure mat and Danher’s death.
“I cannot imagine the grief that they are going through,” Reynolds said, adding that she would be happy to meet Danher’s parents.
Labor’s NDIS spokesman, Bill Shorten, said in a statement after the hearing: “The Danher family’s tragic experience is another example of the bureaucratic nightmare the Liberals have created to stop people accessing the NDIS.”