Opinion | 17 May 2018

NDIS review system can no longer be ignored

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The Commonwealth Ombudsman has released a report on the administration of NDIS reviews. Among other things, it noted that as of February 2018 there were 8,100 reviews on hand, and a further 620 new review requests each week.

First, let’s put this figure in perspective. In the most recent NDIS quarterly report, to December 2017, there were 142,000 people on the Scheme. From this, according to the NDIA’s own numbers, around 620 new people each week are lodging a request for a review. That’s over 32,000 review requests per year, or over 22% of people currently on the Scheme. This means around 1 in 5 current participants are seeking a review.

Scaled up to full Scheme participation of 460,000 people, this would equate to over 100,000 review requests a year. Crikey.

The figures look dramatic, so let’s unpack this.

First, it’s important to consider whether a review request means the Scheme is failing. In our view, it doesn’t. The availability of a review process is an important part of how any system learns from its experiences. For the NDIS, the review process is a key element to help make sure that people living with disability have their voices heard when they’re not happy about arrangements.

The next question to consider is, how many review requests is too many? The numbers quoted by the Ombudsman suggest one in five participants is requesting a review. It sounds a lot; if this was a restaurant and one in every five dishes was being sent back to the kitchen, the restaurant’s in trouble.

But there is more to an NDIS review request than a bad dish. The NDIS Act provides for two types of review requests. The first, termed an ‘unscheduled plan review’ can happen when there is a change in the participant’s circumstances that may have an impact on the level of supports they need. It would be unfair to blame the NDIA for whatever amount of these types of review requests come through, because they reflect what is happening to people in their lives.

The second type of review, termed an ‘internal review’, can happen when a participant is not happy about an NDIS decision. Given the Scheme is still figuring out how best to run itself – no one in Australia can yet claim to be an expert in how best to run a national disability support scheme involving 460,000 people – we cannot be surprised that some decisions are not sitting well with participants who want to test them. And it’s easy to imagine that a number of these types of review requests may be the result of the NDIA having the difficult task of trying to evolve a participant pathway while also having to bring 460,000 people onto the Scheme in a tight timeframe, and where policies, tactics and protocols are still being figured out and refined.

So it doesn’t seem fair for anyone to take aim at the NDIA for the volume of review requests currently heading their way, at least not until the Scheme is running at full participation.

The next question to consider is whether the NDIA is processing these review requests fast enough. Here, it is much harder to defend the current situation. Given the likelihood that at least some of these review requests will be because a decision is wrong and has left a person critically under-supported, an NDIS participant and their family should not have to wait nine months for that to be fixed; it’s a long gestation for someone’s concerns to be heard, and is potentially dangerous.

The only mitigating reason that readily comes to mind is that the NDIA has limits on how many people it is allowed to employ, and this has meant that the review capacity is underdone. If so, this reason may be sincere but it’s not enough; it’s just not right to have people waiting that long. The situation is made much worse when participants and their families get no explanation for the delay; “complete radio silence” as one frustrated family member put it.

So if resource limits are the main reason for the delay, the NDIS government stakeholders need to quickly equip the NDIA with sufficient additional resource and delegation to fix the backlog and keep it fixed.

Accordingly, it is important now for the NDIA to tell folk how it is strengthening the review arrangements and to give an undertaking that the review requesters won’t have to wait a long time for their voice to be heard.

The final question to consider is what the NDIA is learning from the reviews process, and how it is using this learning to strengthen the Scheme. As we said earlier, reviews are an important mechanism for assisting the NDIA to learn from its experiences so that the NDIS is stronger for its participants.

Questions that could be asked of the NDIA include:

  • What is the NDIA learning from the review process, and how is it using this valuable information to evolve the Scheme’s arrangements?
  • How many of the reviews relate to matters the NDIA considers avoidable, and what steps is it taking to manage down the numbers of those types of reviews?
  • The NDIA has spent time looking for ways to improve the NDIS participant pathway for people. In the places where this new pathway is now being used, has there been a change in the number of review requests, and what is the NDIA learning from that?
  • What is the NDIA learning about the current arrangements for handling review requests, and how is it evolving arrangements so that folk have a much shorter time to wait for the review? And when does the NDIA hope to formally clear the backlog?
  • There will be other questions, but these types of questions can help a constructive dialogue, one that reduces the risk of the Ombudsman’s report being another reason for folk to yell at the NDIS and its agency.

We all want the NDIS to be a success. We can’t expect the NDIA to get everything right every time. But we must expect the NDIA to demonstrate that it is learning from its experiences, especially when that learning comes from the feedback from participants and their families.

And we must also expect the nine Australian government partners and their departments to move swiftly to support the NDIA when it has a legitimate and pressing need for extra resource to properly respond to participants.

The NDIA has accepted all 20 recommendations in the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report and has already started work to improve its communication and timeliness when handling reviews. This is encouraging. It is important everyone involved with the administration of the NDIS never forgets the Scheme is about people. However imperfect in other ways, the Scheme must treat people living with disability and their families with the respect they deserve; this includes staying in touch when it counts. It’s the very least people should expect of a Scheme designed to help them.

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