NDIS reforms put on hold

New NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
New NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Plans to subject all NDIS participants to independent assessments have been put on hold amid fierce opposition and political pressure.

Ahead of a meeting with her state and territory counterparts on Thursday, new NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds confirmed she won't make a decision on the introduction of the new regime until the results of an ongoing trial had been assessed.

But Senator Reynolds has indicated the government remains committed to independent assessments, describing them as a "globally-recognised tool to ensure consistency and fairness".

A coalition of disability groups have welcomed the decision to pause the rollout of what they termed "tick-a-box-assessments", hoping it signals the start of genuine consultation between the government and the people the $22 billion scheme exists to support.

Independent assessments of prospective participants were due to start in the middle of 2021, but Senator Reynolds' statement all but confirms that timeframe would now be abandoned.

The government has already signed contracts worth $339 million with private providers to deliver the assessments. The eight successful providers were announced on February 26 - just four days after community consultation on the contentious plan wrapped up.

Senator Reynolds faced immediate calls to dump the planned changes after replacing Stuart Robert in the role late last month, with disability groups, Labor and the Greens all staunchly opposed.

Almost all state and territory ministers - including the ACT's Emma Davidson - have expressed concerns about the proposed model and a lack of consultation from the Morrison government about the overhaul.

Senator Reynolds has signalled she was open to a change in approach since taking on the role, repeatedly saying she would consult widely before committing to the next steps.

Under the model pushed by her predecessor, government-appointed health professionals would conduct assessments on participants to help determine their eligibility for the scheme.

At present, prospective participants choose their own doctors and health professionals.

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Mr Robert had argued the new system would be fairer and result in more consistent assessments.

But opponents argued the new system would undermine the principle that participants had "choice and control" over the support they received.

Disability groups had also feared that subjecting participants to assessments from people they didn't know would cause trauma and anxiety.

Disability advocate Dougie Herd has been fiercely opposed to the government's plans. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Disability advocate Dougie Herd has been fiercely opposed to the government's plans. Picture: Keegan Carroll

In an interview with The Australian ahead of Thursday's ministers meeting, Senator Reynolds said that once the trial was concluded, the government would look at the "best process (for assessment of eligibility), one that is fair and equitable and has appeal mechanisms".

Senator Reynolds' decision follows weeks of damaging headlines for the Morrison government over its plans for the NDIS.

Leaked draft legislation showed the government was considering sweeping changes, including diluting the influence of states and sanctioning participants who used their allocated funds to pay for certain items.

That was followed by allegations it had had "tampered" with David Tune's independent review of the NDIS by inserting the chapter used to justify the new assessment regime. Mr Robert's plan ultimately went beyond what was recommended in the final Tune report.

This week it was revealed the agency running the scheme had set up a special unit to "slow growth" in participant numbers and funding packages, in an urgent attempt to rein in spending to avoid a looming budget blowout.

In a statement, a coalition of 20 disability groups welcomed Senator Reynolds' decision, but said they wanted more detail on what it meant for participants.

"There has been widespread opposition to the proposed model from people with disability, our families and community, and it is heartening the new Minister has listened to those concerns," the coalition's spokeswoman, Blind Citizens Australia acting chief executive Sally Aurisch, said.

"A privatised assessment system where a person with disability's future would be determined by a tick-a-box assessment with a stranger over a few hours was not the NDIS thousands of Australians fought for."

Labor's Canberra MP Alicia Payne has been an outspoken critic of the government's proposed NDIS overhaul. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Labor's Canberra MP Alicia Payne has been an outspoken critic of the government's proposed NDIS overhaul. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Canberra Labor MP Alicia Payne, who sits on parliament's NDIS committee, said it was "promising" to hear Senator Reynolds would at least reconsider the proposal.

"This would be a win for the disability community who have lobbied hard on this issue, but they shouldn't have to do that to be heard - they should be at the centre of policy making for the NDIS," she said.

"What we need to see from the government is a shift in their attitude to the NDIS, enough of distrust and cost cutting and time to really make choice and control the guiding principal."

Labor's NDIS spokesman Bill Shorten said the independent assessment plan should be dumped altogether.

"The assessments plan is an anti-disability monster and as the new Liberal gatekeeper of the NDIS she needs to put a stake in its heart - not just delay it," he said.

Senator Reynolds said the federal government remained committed to the NDIS. She said the scheme was expected to cost $93.8 billion over the next four years - $48.6 billion of which would come from the Commonwealth.

"We all remain committed to the financial longevity of the NDIS, so it endures for many generations to come," she said.

"It was established as, and continues to be, an insurance scheme. Any future reforms must continue to deliver on the promise of the NDIS - to provide people with a permanent and significant disability with true choice and control over a flexible support package to achieve their goals.

"And this is what independent assessments are designed to do.

"They're globally recognised assessment tools to ensure consistency and fairness."

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This story NDIS reforms put on hold amid fierce opposition first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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