News | 6 March 2020

So what the hell is Senate Estimates and why does it matter?

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Screenshot from the Parliament House video footage showing two sides of a large square tabel setup. In the foreground we see NDIA staff and in the background is Senator Jordon Steele-John.

Yesterday the Community Affairs Estimates Committee had their first hearing for the year. This is the Committee that oversees the important portfolios of health, disability and social services in the Federal government.

Why should you give a tinkers about yet another government committee?

You should give a toss about Senate Estimates. Estimates is a really important part of our democracy. It is yet another way to hold government to account for the way they run the country. Senators get to grill both Ministers and public servants about what is really going on beyond information available on fancy websites or in glossy brochures.

Or dare we say – in NDIS Quarterly Reports. The head honchos at the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) along with their frenemies at the Department of Social Services (DSS) regularly appear to answer questions from Senators about how the scheme is tracking and how participants are faring.

Yesterday newish CEO of the NDIA Martin Hoffman, Deputy CEO Vicki Rundle, Scheme Actuary Sarah Johnson and Branch Manager Scheme Integrity (all things fraud) Scott Britton as well as head honchos from DSS all fielded questions about fraud, transport, staff caps, assistance dogs, Information Linkages and Capacity Building (ILC) grants and the newly minted Goal Attainment Framework (yes that is actually a thing).


So what did we learn?

🚗 Transport. BIG admission that the NDIA might made a mistake with the recent changes they have made to transport. As we have pointed out those changes have created a very perverse incentive for people to rely on specialist disability services rather than joining in stuff already happening out in the community. Under questioning from Senator Jordon Steele-John, the NDIA admitted that’s certainly not what they intended and they might have actually Got. It. Wrong. They wriggled around it a bit but it certainly sounded like they were going to have another look at it. And so they should. You can watch the clip below (or skip to transcript):


💔 In contrast to information given by the Minister for the NDIS Stuart Robert, the NDIA confirmed that 1,279 people with disability have died between being accepted as a participant and receiving their first plan. That’s heartbreaking and our thoughts go out to all those individuals, families and friends who lost someone they loved. Senators also asked how many people died while waiting for their request for a review to be resolved. NDIA did not know.


📈 NDIA told Senators that the longer people are in the scheme, the larger their plans get and the more money they spend. Kinda makes sense right? There are now a group of people in the scheme who have had five NDIS plans. For these people, their first plan was on average $64,000 and they spent $22,000 – or only 34%. By the time they got to their fifth plan, the average budget was $94,000 and they spent $68,000 – or 72%. (Important to note that these are only averages). This helps explain why “scheme sustainability” is such a thing at the moment. But we think it makes sense – as people get more comfortable with the scheme they not only spend more but are better able to explain what they need.


✅❌ The NDIA are currently trialling something called a “Goal Attainment Framework”. The goal of the framework (all puns intended) is to “help participants develop goals that are meaningful to them and to measure the extent to which they are achieved” (NDIS Quarterly Report 19/20). The NDIA want participants to set goals that are “clear, realistic and measurable” and then score how well they are progressing against them. So Senator Jordon Steele John decided now would be just the right time to ask Social Services Minister Anne Ruston what her life goals were and whether they were “clear, realistic and measurable”. She agreed to take that one on notice (which is estimates speak for “I’ll get back to you”). But all jokes aside, the point is valid – why do we have to set goals to get support? This new framework needs more attention because the plan is to roll it out nationally very soon.


🖥 Waiting to get paid. The NDIA confessed that there were more than 15,000 emails sitting with the provider payment team about outstanding payments for services to NDIS participants. But that was an improvement – because back in January than the number was 27,000. Eeek. That’s one out of control inbox.


😡 Fraud. The NDIA told Senators that since the scheme began about 17,000 NDIS participants have had their plans “topped up” because they lost funds due to fraud or “money being inappropriately removed” (that is some serious bureaucratic gobbledegook). The total amount of money replaced was about $8 million. Yep – Million with a capital M. The NDIA also said they had 12 fraud investigations live right now, with 2 cases before the courts. There has been one conviction so far. There was a fair bit of tap dancing during this session because they did not want to jeopardise ongoing investigations.


💵 NDIS Reserve Fund. The Department of Social Services confirmed that last year the underspend in the NDIS was about $4.3 billion. They also said that last year all the Disability Ministers from around the country agreed to set up an NDIS Reserve Fund. That fund has about $1 billion sitting in it now, made up of “cash accumulated during the transition period”. In other words – money that was not spent. So all the Ministers agreed to set it up – but now cannot agree on how it should be spent. Well head over here Ministers because we have more than a few ideas.


And right at the end Minister for Social Services Anne Ruston told Senators the government’s response to the Tune Review will land next week, so stay tuned.


And finally the prize for the moment of complete absurdity:

Turns out the Cronulla Sharks received an ILC grant for $107,800. (But to be fair they weren’t on their own. The AFL and Hawthorn Football Club got one too).



You can watch Senate Estimates on the Australian Parliament House website.

There are also transcripts available.

And if you follow us on Twitter you can read our live tweets.



Video transcript


Now who am I best to ask around a recent or a relatively recent Agency announcement in relation to transport funding for support workers?

Who would that be? Yes?

So could you first of all just clarify for me the nature of the announcement and what the change potentially means for participants?

Senator, are you talking about the most recent one in February?

Yes, to do with the ability to access core support funding for the transport costs of support workers.

So, it was announced that there’d be increased flexibility in a participant plan – there’d be increased flexibility in the plan for the provider to claim for vehicle running costs, if the transport was connected to a community participation or some other activity funded in the participant’s plan in addition to the support worker’s time.

That transport addition, or support is paid at a per kilometre rate and it’s a different rate depending upon the type of vehicle.

And also, it was possible to claim on other associated costs such as road tolls, parking, public transport fares.

Bits and pieces like that.


And so, just to clarify – I’ll use myself as an example.

If I want to attend a dance class – which I – I am a dancer as you can tell by my physique.

If I want to attend a dance class and I need a support worker to help me get there –

I’ll drive you.

Thank you very much, Minister.

Community supports are important.

Oh that would be an ‘in-kind’ support.

That would be something that I could potentially access my core support funding to pay for the travel costs of that support worker?

Now in terms of the –

Sorry, Senator, I do have to clarify – only if that dance class was itself a funded support.

Thank you for clarifying that Mr Hoffman.

So if it – if I’m not in – if that is not a, uh so if it’s a funded support, yes.

But is there a connection to whether or not that dance class is provided by the service provider that is also employing the support worker?

No, that’s not a requirement or a linkage that’s there.

Oh, ok. So you’re telling me that as long as I have identified it beforehand, as something that I want to do in terms of participating in the community –

And it’s a funded support activity.


Then it doesn’t have to be the same provider who’s doing the support worker, who’s driving you and assisting you to get there.

SENATOR JORDON STEELE-JOHN: Alright, well that does need clarification then because we, I mean, we still have a scheme one of the goals of which is increasing the economic participation of participants.

And I’m wondering then if I’m getting that support worker to support me to go attend the dance class, and the dance class is a regular community you know, just a regular community thing am I still then able to access my core supports to attend that?

No, Senator. No.

So only if it is a specialist disability service?

A funded support, that’s right.

A funded support.

If I – if it’s not that then, what support exists to enable me to attend such an event? Or workshop.

So there are a range of other transport supports, this was the announcement in February, that’s why I asked earlier about whether it was just that announcement.

So, there are a number of things that we do, but – last year we did a range of things – we increased the – we uplifted the level of support in participant’s plans, who were heavy users of transport to make sure they had enough money in their plans.

We also – though it may not be directly related to this – but if you’re a taxi subsidy user, we entered into an arrangement with the states and territories that we would subsidise their taxi subsidy schemes until October 2021 while we work out the longer-term arrangements.

And then there are a range of other transport supports that you may well be familiar with Senator, such as – we can teach people how to use public transport, we can teach them how to drive, we can modify a car, through the AT assistance scheme.

Ok, I mean my concern there is that it’s roughly about, if you go to the top level of all of those forms of support that you’re talking about – it’s that it works out at about $66 a week for support for transport.

And my concern, this goes back to the point about economic participation is, I wonder whether you’ve thought through the potential impact of this change – as well-intended as I’m sure it was – it actually incentivises the participation of a – the involvement and participation of a participant in an activity in the community that is disability-specific – a funded support as opposed to a regular community activity which ultimately, for the long-term we can have a conversation about mainstreaming the community and all the rest of it, but ultimately for the long-term financial viability of the scheme what you want to be doing is promoting people to go into the community and participate in whatever form of activity works best for them not incentivising them towards a specialist disability service provider activity.

VICKI RUNDLE – NDIA DEPUTY CEO: So Senator, I’d need to check our guidelines for sure, but I don’t think that would be our intention at all

No, it’s not your intention –

But it is the way it works, but I acknowledge – we’ve had the same debates internally. I acknowledge this point.

It is – you’ve analysed the potential incentives correctly.

And it is something that we’re considering, in the Agency, with the Department now.

I think we’ve got to look at it in the context of a more general move towards greater plan flexibility in general, because one of our problems – of course there’s multiple problems – is ever more fine-slicing the salami causes uncertainty for the participant, work for us, and so on and so on.

So, this is the direction the Minister’s already flagged, in terms of greater general flexibility to use the bucket for whatever the person thinks – in choice and control makes sense.

Yeah. So is that – is this something that you might be reviewing?

Reasonably soon? To remove the distinction?

So it’s not for me to make a kind of policy announcement here etc, but I acknowledge the issue that you have analysed is one that I’ve thought about personally, myself, and asked about, and it is one that we are considering. But it’s not for me to make a policy call here.

Is that something you could take back to the Minister as well?

Look, absolutely.

And I don’t know that I’ll be able to respond as quickly for that one as I have from this one but the Minister has already advised that the Tune Review is likely to be released next week, and in conjunction with it will be the exposure draft in relation to the legislation that will be required for the performance guarantee.

Ok, thank you very much.

I also want to flag – I should because it’s a community that we don’t hear from the other challenge with the current structure is that if you are somebody that is bedbound, for instance, and what you are needing to cover is perhaps the cost of a service or a support worker that needs to come to you, because of the nature of your inability to leave the house – to leave the house rather, there are also challenges there. But I’m glad to hear that it’s on your radar.


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