Meet NDIS, the “bureaucratic beast”

The much-anticipated National Disability Insurance Scheme has arrived in WA but the federally funded scheme isn’t all it is cracked up to be, according to service providers and prospective clients.

So what is the NDIS?

Introduced to the eastern states in July 2013, the NDIS has been designed to give people with disabilities the ability to control the funding they receive to assist them in achieving their goals.

It will apply to those with a permanent and significant disability under the age of 65 years old.

While the WA government chose not to join the scheme when it was rolled out across the eastern states, they decided to start a separate system similar to the NDIS, known as WA NDIS in 2014.

Instead of WA’s old system, where service providers were given funding to provide services to clients, the NDIS gives clients the choice of what services they receive and where they get them from.

National Disability Services senior project officer Peter Darch is a quadriplegic and said the previous block funding system was based on a critical need, where people with a disability had to convince authorities of their situation.

National Disability Services will help roll out the NDIS in WA. Photo: Caelie Jones.

“People weren’t reaching their potential on that system. For me, being a quadriplegic, I jumped on board with the NDIS because I’ve always had high aspirations and motivation to succeed,” Mr Darch said.

“The NDIS is about being able to advocate for yourself and getting the support when you need the support, so you can reach your goals.”

Now with Labor in power, WA has joined the federal NDIS system.

Rocky Bay corporate technology manager Alvaro Heurtas is a paraplegic and will roll over to the NDIS system in the coming year.

Mr Heurtas said he understood the new system would involve independent assessors from the National Disability Insurance Agency assessing individuals’ needs.

“Based on those needs, the assessor will determine the best funding package for you and then that will get reviewed every year or if your needs change significantly,” he said.

After several years of the NDIS running over east, shortfalls have been identified which have led to concerns of how it will work in WA.

In contrast to Rocky Bay, which offers services to thousands of people in Perth, WA Blue Sky is considered a small organisation as it only provides services to 30 clients.

WA Blue Sky chief executive officer Frances Buchanan said there were high expectations for the scheme given the hype and excitement when it was first announced in 2013.

“I think what we’re seeing versus what people expected to see is a significant gap,” Ms Buchanan said.

“We all get excited about new ideas but the expectation was possibly too high and possibly unrealistic.”

WA Blue CEO Frances Buchanan said the NDIS will be a tough battle for small organisations like hers. Photo: Caelie Jones.

She admitted there are problems with the new system which has taken its toll on some service providers.

“Sadly, a number of smaller organisations over east have just merged into bigger organisations or ceased to exist, which is evidence of a few things not working,” Ms Buchanan said.

She has identified three areas which are having a negative impact on service providers and as a result, clients of those providers.

Although it is too early to tell just how negative an impact these will have on organisations in WA, she said the concerns are very real for all CEO’s in the disability sector.

One of these concerns is the pricing structure for service providers.

Under the NDIS, the federal government sets fixed prices for services such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

According to Rocky Bay home and community director Jane Edmond, the move to fixed prices would have a negative impact on service providers.

“On the block funding, we’re currently charging around about $50 to $55 an hour for a certain service. Under the NDIS, it’s $45.40 or similar,” she said.

“That’s roughly $10 less an hour, so that’s a huge financial impact on us when you think about us still having to be bound by our employment agreements where we need to pay our staff.

“The prices that the NDIS are offering are just not sustainable.”

Rocky Bay provides services for over 1,000 West Australians. Photo: Caelie Jones.

Ms Buchanan said this pricing structure means employees would have lower wages and would most likely leave if it’s not a wage they can live on.

Organisations would then be forced to employ people who are willing to accept a lower wage, meaning they would typically have less experience.

“We’ll be left with employing anyone who’s not able to be employed elsewhere,” she said.

In addition, clients, and specifically high-need clients, will be impacted.

They won’t receive high quality care and support due to less experienced workers who may not know how to handle the needs of people with disabilities.

“I worry about the quality of support. Can we continue to pay for and support them, which makes life nice?” Ms Buchanan said.

“Can we continue to pay for staff and staff training to make sure that people are safe and getting a good deal?

“Ask any CEO in our sector what keeps them awake at night and it will come to those things.”

For Ms Buchanan, it’s still too early to tell if WA Blue Sky will be forced into closing like other smaller organisations over east.

“Will we continue to deliver services to people with a disability?” she said.

“It’s early days but I hope we can stay sustainable.”

Although Ms Edmond is confident Rocky Bay can stay afloat, she said smaller organisations aren’t going to be around in a few years.

“I think that’s a bad thing because the NDIS is all about choice and control by the people. The government have said people will have choice about who they use to provide different aspects of their plans,” she said.

“If smaller organisations close, the choice may be down to a few because it might just be the bigger ones that survive because they’re the financially healthy ones and then that’s not good for people.”

Although most WA clients aren’t on the NDIS yet, many are preparing to make the transition in the coming year.

For Rocky Bay accountant Michael Barrett-Lennard, his spinal muscular atrophy means he has high needs which the scheme must address.

Michael Barrett-Lennard has spinal muscular atrophy. Photo: Caelie Jones.

“I’ll probably transition between August and October this year, but I’m not 100 per cent sure what I’ll receive,” he said.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about it and I won’t know until I get the call up to start participating. I know what I’m going to ask for, but whether or not I receive it, that’s another question.”

Paralysed from the waist down, Alvaro Heurtas doesn’t have high needs when compared to others on the disability spectrum.

He said he hoped the NDIS would mean he gets what he wants, but he was concerned about the future.

“The NDIS will probably be a very different beast to what it is now, when it’s fully rolled out in five or six years,” he said.

“I think the government is going to be up for a bit of a shock in terms of the amount of money and requests that are going to come in from individuals. I’m concerned about that.”

Paraplegic Alvaro Heurtas hopes his car modifications will be funded under the NDIS. Photo: Caelie Jones.

Mr Heurtas is very mobile with his disability, using a manual wheelchair.

He also has the ability to drive a modified car, using his hands instead of his feet to operate the brake and accelerator.

“I’ve got a VW Golf which was modified about 10 years ago. It’s a normal vehicle in terms of the seating and driving arrangements but I have a handle which comes in through the steering column which allows me to operate the brake and accelerator,” he said.

“At the moment I have a mobility allowance and I imagine the NDIS will fund the modifications for my car when I transition to it, or at least, I really hope they do.”

The NDIS will bring advantages to many with disabilities in WA, allowing people to create their own plans to help them achieve their goals, but there are unwavering concerns for its future and how it will affect service providers and clients.

“I think it will be good for many people. I think some people will be worse off. I guess we’ll wait and see,” Mr Heurtas said.

“There are a lot of great stories out of the NDIS, people who didn’t have any support or people who didn’t have any control or decision-making capacity,” Ms Buchanan said.

“Sadly, its implementation has seen a lot of problems for both people with disability, family members and the services that provide the support to people with disability.

“It’s a bureaucratic beast.”

If you want to hear more from Alvaro Heurtas and how he became a paraplegic, listen in here.