NDIS timetable won't be met, Productivity Commission warns

Christopher Knaus
About 100,000 people have been signed up so far to the national disability insurance scheme. Photograph: Allan Baxter/Getty Images

The federal government will not meet its target of 475,000 national disability insurance scheme participants by 2019-20, and is failing to grow the disability workforce fast enough to meet the looming demand, the Productivity Commission has warned.

The commission releases its report on the costs of the $22bn NDIS on Thursday, and offers a bleak assessment of its chances of meeting the tight deadlines set out in a series of bilateral agreements between the commonwealth and the states and territories.

About 100,000 people have already been signed up but the government must develop support plans for at least 475,000 by 2019-20.

To meet that deadline, the NDIS – the biggest social reform since Medicare – is being implemented at breakneck speed. Advocates have long voiced concerns that the pace of the rollout is compromising decision making and leaving people with a disability with inadequate support packages.

Those fears were confirmed by the Productivity Commission’s report, which said the “[National Disability Insurance Agency’s] focus on participant intake has compromised the quality of plans and participant outcomes”.

“Quality plans are critical, not only for participant outcomes but also for sending the right signals to providers about demand for supports and containing long-term costs of the scheme,” the Productivity Commission said.

The report described the pace of change brought by the NDIS as “unprecedented”, and warned meeting the intake targets would require the approval of hundreds of plans a day, and the review of hundreds more.

In the final year of the transition, it would require the approval of 500 plans – each complex and tailored to the needs of the individual – every day.

“The reality is that the current timetable for participant intake will not be met,” the report said. “Governments and the NDIA need to start planning now for a changed timetable, including working through the financial implications.”

The report also warned that the growth of the disability workforce was “way too slow”. At full operation, the scheme will require 70,000 additional disability support care workers. That means one in every five jobs created now need to be in the disability sector.

The Productivity Commission recommended the looming shortages be addressed by a targeted approach to skilled migration, intervention in thin markets, and independent price monitoring and regulation.

But the overall message of the report was positive. The NDIS, if implemented well, would greatly improve the lives of people with a disability, it found. The support for the scheme was described as “overwhelming” and “extraordinary”.

The costs were broadly in line with what was expected, although that was largely because not all supports were being used by participants.

The report called for greater attention on the pre-planning and planning phases of the NDIS, which help determine what supports an individual is eligible for and for how long.

It comes just a day after the NDIA announced an overhaul of the way it interacts with people with a disability, promising more face-to-face planning conversations, and simpler and clearer communications.

The NDIA chief executive, Robert De Luca, conceded there had been flaws in the early implementation of the scheme, which were being learned from and addressed.

“What we’ve heard through the process is that the phone conversation hasn’t always been as engaging as it could have been in a face-to-face environment,” De Luca told Guardian Australia.

“The capability of the people on the phone wasn’t at the right level to understand the needs of the people that we’re helping.”

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