Issue 30 / 15 August 2011

IT’S good to see the federal government finally paying some serious attention to the desperate needs of disabled people and those who care for them.

The government’s announcement last week that it would move to set up a national insurance scheme, as recommended in a Productivity Commission report into disability care and support, was welcome news.

You could quibble about the yet-to-be-determined details, or about the fact that the scheme is unlikely to be fully operational before 2018, but it’s long past time we provided better and more consistent support to some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

Anybody who’s been close to a family that includes a child with a disability knows how relentless the struggle can be, especially when services that could make a serious difference to their quality of life are either unavailable or financially beyond reach.

As the Productivity Commission report put it, disability support in this country is currently “underfunded, unfair, fragmented and inefficient”.

It would be nice to think this might be one area where we could dispense with the petty squabbling and nay-saying that seems to pass for political debate these days.

But it seems not. It was disappointing to see the first reaction of WA Premier Colin Barnett to the news. The proposed scheme was all about “political power for bureaucrats in Canberra”, he told the ABC and he wasn’t at all inclined to put his hand up and say yes to it.

The Premier did appear to back off slightly when challenged, but there is something deeply wrong with a political culture that produces that kind of knee-jerk reaction to news of a better deal for disabled people.

One of the strengths of the proposed scheme is its “no fault” basis, replacing the current lottery that sees those who can convince a court their disability is the result of somebody else’s negligence receiving large compensation payments, while others struggle to survive.

That’s not to say victims of negligence should be denied the right to sue, but their needs are not necessarily any greater than those of people whose disability is simply the result of genes or misfortune.

And the parlous state of the current system encourages desperate families to try their hand in court even when their case may be far from clear, with often devastating consequences for doctors accused of medical negligence.

Cases can sometimes be brought decades after the event: there has been consternation in obstetric circles in recent weeks at the news Professor Jeffrey Robinson is facing a lawsuit over a 1985 forceps delivery of a child who has had lifelong consequences from Erb’s palsy.

Without making any judgement of the rights or wrongs of that case, it would clearly be a good thing if we could ensure parents had options other than legal action in seeking to provide a secure financial future for a child with a disability.

The proposed national insurance scheme won’t do away with medical negligence suits, or solve all the problems of disability services, but it is a step in the right direction.

We can, and should, debate the detail but it would be a refreshing change to see everybody — including the spoilers among the state premiers — get behind the principle.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 15 August 2011

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