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Politics with Michelle Grattan: NDIA chair Kurt Fearnley on ‘fundamental’ reform of the disability scheme


The federal government is trying to contain the exploding costs of the pioneering national disability insurance scheme — especially difficult given the fears of vulnerable people who rely on it.

The national cabinet’s decision last week to aim for a reduction in cost increases from the current 14% per annum to 8% by 2026 drew a sharp backlash from disability advocates. This fiscal year, the NDIS will cost more than $35 billion, two-thirds paid for by the federal government.

The government has marked areas for change and an assessment is also being carried out.

In this podcast, former Paralympian Kurt Fearnley, chairman of the National Disability Insurance Authority, which runs the scheme, discusses the issues and the way forward.

Fearnley says the NDIS is “working really well” overall, while acknowledging that parts need significant overhaul to be financially sustainable.

“There are parts of the scheme that need quite a fundamental reform” – but that reform must “go hand in hand” with the participants.

The government has announced more than $720 million over four years for the NDIA: Fearnley says: “It will enable us to build an agency that is better positioned to answer and answer the participant quickly, but also be able to for an agency that is better positioned to ensure we are focused on the results we have all fought for.”

“This arrangement works for many communities. Unfortunately, it has also had its complications in making sure we deal with First Australians appropriately, allowing Indigenous Australians to thrive on this plan.

“So there are many areas of reform, but it will all depend on whether we can create a system where the voice of the participants is heard every step of the way.”

An important part of the reform is to make the scheme less complicated. As an example, Fearnley recounts a situation he recently experienced.

One mother “broke down, she was in tears as she described her interactions between the agency and a service provider. We encourage an evidence-based approach to the child’s experience within the scheme. And then this parent talks about how they felt their child was considered an ATM for an outside service.

“Choice and control is beautiful for some and hard for others. We’ve built this incredible system (…) It’s there that serves 590,000 people, all with their unique experience of disability, and it’s choice and control element which I think could be overwhelming for a new entrant.

“It’s a fundamental reform into an incredibly, damn amazing, powerful concept for a person with a disability who has never, in many cases, ever been asked what they want from life.

But disability is “one of the most complex experiences in life. As a person with a disability, I’ve been able to find my path over a long period of time. And that’s where I think the element of choice and control is amazing. But I do think it has its challenges in other parts.

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