Disability support services navigate flawed NDIS system

Tumut-based disability service provider Valmar Support Services has already had three years experience navigating the NDIS. The NDIS is currently in the process of rolling out in Tumut, but Valmar were granted contracts to provide services in the ACT, one of the trial areas of the new system.

Valmar CEO Hugh Packard said he’s hopeful the agency responsible for the scheme, the NDIA, and the government itself, have learned from the flawed experience of rolling out the scheme in areas like the ACT.

One positive here is that the group responsible for deciding on the plans and funding levels for people with disabilities is Interreach, a respected Deniliquin-based disability support agency who is familiar with the Murrumbidgee.

They will be the ones contracted to act as Local Area Coordinators, or LACS.

LACs have only three hours or so to decide on a disability support plan that will cost thousands of dollars and decide on the quality of someone’s life – someone the LAC is meeting for the first time, and sometimes, someone they are only speaking with over the phone.

After this conversation the plan for the person with a disability is decided on and there is limited opportunity for review for 12 months. In some areas, the LAC contracts were awarded to agencies that neither worked in the disability support sector nor were familiar with the relevant region.

For example, the NDIS plans for people with disabilities in the ACT will be decided by an aged care organisation from Byron Bay.

Even if they don’t have a history with each person in Tumut, at the very least our LACs, from Interreach, have an understanding of disability, a condition that can be complicated to understand – particularly in the case of intellectual disabilities.

Even outside of the varying experience and expertise levels of the LACs, Mr Packard said the National Disability Insurance Agency itself isn’t exactly user-friendly.

“Most organisations are still trying to find their way through the scheme, because it’s quite a different way of doing business,” he said.

“The not so effective roll out is based on speed. It’s a huge change to an entire system that they’re trying to get done in a very short amount of time. There’s 60 to 70,000 people with disabilities in NSW alone that they need to process each year.

“While the government hasn’t penny-pinched at all on the funding for the people with disabilities once they get through this process, where they are penny-pinching is the NDIA itself. Only 7 per cent of the NDIS funding is allowed to be spent on the agency that’s responsible for it. I mean, any organisation would struggle with overheads of 7 per cent.

“One of our staff members called the NDIA the other day and had a wait time of two and a half hours – and that’s what people with disabilities are dealing with as well.”

Mr Packard said there are a raft of structural problems with the NDIS, which have been compounded by an apparent unwillingness on behalf of the agency to consult with the sector and assess cooperatively on the best way to meet the needs of both the people with disabilities, and the providers who need to remain viable.

For example, the NDIS is a person-focused model, which means that funding is allocated to each person with a disability based on what the LAC thinks they require.

The person with a disability then spends that money on one or several providers which offer the services that they need – which is, in many ways, a good thing.

But there’s no emergency money for providers to spend on situations that don’t fit neatly into that system.

“Say you have someone with a high level of care, who has a parent who is looking after them – but that parent suddenly dies,” Mr Packard said.

“They need care right then and there, they don’t have the time or ability to go through the months long process of applying for the NDIS and updating their plan, which takes months. Previously, Valmar had a bundle of money set aside for that exact purpose – emergency respite money. Well we don’t have that any more.

“Another question that hasn’t been answered is who is the provider of last resort? There are high-needs people who are very, very challenging, who are aggressive and violent with staff and who need round the clock care. We don’t have the ability to look after them at Valmar, and prior to the NDIS those people would go to homes run by the state government. But the NDIS doesn’t fund government-run centres. So who looks after those people? We don’t know.”

However, Mr Packard is hopeful that these are teething problems, and that after it’s initial implementation the NDIS will prove to be a positive experience for people with disabilities in Australia.

He also notes that thanks to Valmar, Tumut, for decades, has been enjoying a level of care for people with disabilities that the NDIS will bring to other communities.

So for the majority of locals, after they go through this process, their actual level of care is unlikely to change all that much.

“I don’t think that’s beating my own drum, that’s just stating a fact – I’ve seen the data and the majority of regional and rural communities don’t have anywhere near the level of service that they do in Tumut.

“So the NDIS is going to be great for them. For some of the individuals with disabilities here it may just be same old same old, with a bit more flexibility and a few more frustrations.”