News | 30 October 2020

More questions than answers – NDIA and NDIS Commission grilled at Senate Estimates

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Screenshots from Senate Estimates showing NDIA CEO Martin Hoffman, Scheme Actuary Sarah Johnson, Social Services Minister Anne Ruston, DSS Secretary Kathryn Campbell, and Senator Jordon Steele-John via video.

Budget estimates time. For political nerds it’s a little bit of heaven. Full scrutiny of government with a little bit of argy-bargy or Oscar-worthy theatrics thrown in for comic relief.

But even if you don’t have the livestream from Parliament bookmarked on your computer (or is that just us?), Estimates is relevant to everyone. It’s a really important part of our democratic process.

Because it’s the time when Senators get to ask questions about what the government is up to – and what it all means for ordinary folks in Australia.

And yesterday it was the National Disability Insurance Agency and the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission in the hot seat.

And a pretty uncomfortable seat it was.

So what did we learn?

There were four hours of testimony from the NDIA, the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission and the Department of Social Services. So there was a lot to take in.

But four big things jumped out straight away …

One way to clear the backlogs …

The length of time people wait to get into the scheme and for their first plan has fallen over the past year. And the length of time people wait to have internal reviews looked at and sorted out has also dropped a bit.

Well yesterday we found out one of the ways those backlogs have been cleared. The senators asked the NDIA about something called the “fast pathway”.

It appears the fast pathway was a way of sorting out internal reviews. Both “reviews of reviewable decisions” (that is always such a mouthful) or reviews as a result of a change of circumstances.

It seems the NDIA created a “decision tree” for peeps in the internal review team. “Simple” cases got waved through quickly while more complex got looked at more closely. And asked for more evidence.

This fast pathway kicked off at the beginning of this year and ran through until about the middle of the year.

We don’t know much else about this pathway because the NDIA seemed to have been caught off guard by the appearance of one of their own documents outlining what it was and how it worked. And as a result they took most of the questions about the pathway on notice (taking a question on notice is estimates-speak for “we don’t know or don’t want to say so we will get back to you”).

But one thing we do know – people who had an internal review during that time on average received higher-value plans. In the last quarter the average plan size for all NDIS participants was $71,000. In contrast the average plan size for people going through a review was $92,000.

So the questions the Senators asked were – did people who were classified as simple just get whatever they asked for? Rubber stamped and flicked through? While everyone else had to cough up more evidence and argue for what they needed?

The NDIA said no – but did not give any further detail. So we will need to see the answers to the questions on notice to get the answer to that one.

Stay tuned.

How to spend $90 million…

NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner Graeme Head was questioned about the extra $90 million or so the Commission received in the Budget announced in October.

It appears that most of that money will be used to employ about 100 more staff. And that recruitment for these staff is already happening.

But what was interesting was the breakdown of where the new staff will be located. About 40 more staff will be bought into the team that looks at reportable incidents. About 20 or so will be added to the complaints team. A few more will be added to the new National Worker Screening team. And a few more will head to the call centre.

But only 5 or 6 ongoing positions will be added to the investigations team.

Let that sink in. Only 5 or 6.

These jobs will spread out across the country. But none will be added to the team in South Australia. Nada, zero, zilch to South Australia – were Ann Marie Smith died in such a tragic and horrific way.

Fair to say that the Senators weren’t all that impressed with what they heard yesterday. Reckon that won’t be the last word on that one. So again, stay tuned.

How to spend $29 million …

The NDIA revealed that they spent more than $29 million on external legal services last financial year. That was up from $18.4 million the year before.
More an $13 million was spent on appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal – up from $9 million the year before.

That’s a fair chunk of change.

And finally…evaluating the evaluation

A number of the Senators asked questions about the NDIA’s plans to introduce compulsory assessments for all new and existing NDIS participants next year.

In particular, there were lots of questions about what was and was not tested in the very first pilot of this new assessment process held back at the end of 2018.

The NDIA told the committee they had “evaluated” the first pilot. Their version of an evaluation consisted of a survey given to the volunteers who took part as well as an analysis of the results of the assessments.

But there was no detail given as to what that analysis involved or what it actually showed. Nor was there any detail about the survey. When Senators asked for a copy of what participants were asked in the survey, the NDIA said they would have to take the question on notice.

But what they did say was that only 145 of the 513 participants filled out the survey anyway.

So only 28% of the people who volunteered for the pilot said – or were willing to say – what they thought about the whole thing.

And when the Senators suggested that was a pretty low response rate, the NDIA replied that they were pretty happy with it. In fact, they would have accepted an even lower rate.

A second much bigger trial is just getting underway now. More than 4,000 existing participants are going to be asked to take part in this one. And again they will be surveyed to get their thoughts on how the whole thing did or didn’t work for them.

But the NDIA would not comment on what they would regard as an “acceptable” number of people completing the survey. And they certainly would not say what they would change if the feedback was not positive.

There was much bureaucratic gobbledegook and nifty sidestepping during this whole exchange. But it basically came down to – we are going ahead regardless of what the feedback is.

And we don’t need a question on notice to work that one out.

Want to read more?

Here’s our summary of what the report about the first pilot actually revealed.

Putting NDIS assessments to the test – Every Australian Counts

And here is some media coverage of yesterday’s hearing:

Senator’s question the integrity of pilot for controversial NDIS independent assessment reforms – SBS

NDIS website promotes ‘Uber-style’ apps linking participants to support workers – The Guardian

Disability watchdog hiring six new inspectors despite $92.9m funding boost – Sydney Morning Herald

More than 200 contractors employed among the highest executives at the National Disability Insurance Agency – Canberra Times


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