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Fears NDIS teething problems could slow scheme

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The Federal Government has been urged not to use shortcomings in the initial roll-out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme as an excuse to delay its full implementation.

Questions have been raised about the feasibility of current plans to have the scheme in virtually full operation by 2019-20 following a sobering assessment of the capabilities of the Government body charged with overseeing the scheme, the National Disability Insurance Agency.

A review of the NDIA released by Assistant Minister for Social Services Mitch Fifield on 20 March found that the Agency was “like a plane that took off before it had been fully built, and is being completed while it is in the air”.

It found that compressed time-frames – the implementation of the scheme was brought forward by a year by the previous Government – had saddled the nascent organisation with an array of significant problems that could undermine its effectiveness in the longer-term if not addressed.

The review, commissioned by the Agency’s Board at the behest of Senator Fifield, found that the rush to establish four NDIS trial sites by 1 July 2013, had left the organisation with the legacy of an ICT system that was “not fit for purpose” and a Board without the optimal mix of skills, while the decision to relocate its headquarters to Geelong would entail the wholesale turnover of staff, further disrupting operations.

The review warned that one of the greatest risks confronting the Agency is that it is not given time to consolidate and put in place the systems and processes necessary to derive maximum benefit from the lessons gained from the trial sites.

“Pressure to move faster may compromise the ability of the Agency to learn and to collect the evidence needed to inform a successful and sustainable roll-out across the whole country,” it said.

The NDIS was proposed by the Productivity Commission and has been hailed as a major social reform that will vastly improve the lives of the disabled and their families and carers, as well as delivering a significant economic boost to the country.

Senator Fifield said the Government was “determined to deliver the NDIS in full”, but is awaiting advice from the Agency about whether a “successful” roll-out can be achieved under the current timetable.

So far, the Scheme encompasses just 2500 people at four trial sites in Barwon, the Hunter, Tasmania and South Australia. The plan is that from 2017-18 a further 300,000 people will be added – 93 per cent of those eligible.

The Opposition has raised suspicions that the Government may be soft-peddling on the Scheme.

Shadow Minister for Disability Reform Jenny Macklin, who has responsibility for the NDIS when Labor was in office, said the Scheme was one of the nation’s great social reforms and should not be delayed.

The Government inflamed suspicions about its intentions when Treasurer Joe Hockey told Parliament the NDIS was among a “massive tsunami of increases in expenditure” made by the previous Government which had plunged the Budget deep into deficit

“In disability spending, there will be a 125 per cent increase as the NDIS comes into play. And it was not properly paid for,” the Treasurer said.

But Ms Macklin condemned Mr Hockey’s comments and said the NDIS was fully and sustainably funded by a 0.5 percentage point increase in the Medicare levy.
The review’s findings have alarmed proponents of the NDIS concerned about the prospect of delays in its implementation.

Every Australian Counts Campaign Director John Della Bosca said the report should not be used as an excuse for slowing the implementation of the Scheme.

“Rolling out the NDIS is a big job, but it’s hardly sending someone to the moon and it should not take a decade to deliver,” Mr Della Bosca said. “The starting point for any discussion about the NDIS has to be focussed on the real crisis. Every delay in rolling out the NDIS means Australians with disability and their families will struggle without the supports they desperately need.”

Peak body National Disability Services said it would be “premature” to delay the full implementation of the Scheme based on the Review’s findings.

“The NDIS is eight months into a six-year marathon,” the organisation’s Chief Executive Dr Ken Baker said. “We’ve exerted a lot of effort and ingenuity to get this far so quickly; it’s too early to decide that the road ahead is too steep.”

He said the problems identified by the Review were “not insurmountable”.

Adrian Rollins