The new minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Linda Reynolds, has signalled the government will pause controversial plans to roll out independent assessments by the middle of the year, but defended the intent of the policy.
Ahead of her first disability reform council meeting with state and territory ministers on Thursday, Reynolds stopped short of abandoning the plan altogether, noting the assessments were “globally recognised assessment tools to ensure consistency and fairness”.
But she signalled a pause to the current timetable, saying she would be “closely assessing the independent assessment trial outcomes before any enabling legislation is taken forward”.
“The purpose of the trial is to understand what is working and what needs to be improved,” she said in a statement.
Under the existing timetable, the mandatory assessments with a government-contracted allied health professional would begin by the middle of the year. Participants currently provide reports from their own treating specialists to be assessed for the scheme.
The agency that runs the scheme has already signed contracts with eight companies worth $339m to carry out the assessments, but Reynolds’ comments mean the current timetable is all but impossible given the trial is ongoing and the agency says only that its results will be available “later this year”.
However, while Reynolds said she was committed to understanding the concerns of “states and territories, stakeholders, and most of all the participants”, she defended the intent of the independent assessments policy.
“Any future reforms must continue to deliver on the promise of the NDIS – to provide people with a permanent and significant disability with true choice and control over a flexible support package to achieve their goals,” she said.
“And this is what independent assessments are designed to do.
“They’re globally recognised assessment tools to ensure consistency and fairness.”
The pause comes after months of sustained campaigning from disability groups, as well as Labor and the Greens, who view the assessments as a way to cut access to the scheme and package sizes.
“We welcome reports that NDIS minister Linda Reynolds will pause a plan to force people with disability to submit to compulsory assessments to access support, but want to see much more detail about what that means for the future of the NDIS,” said Sally Aurisch, the acting CEO of Blind Citizens Australia.
“There has been widespread opposition to the proposed model from people with disability, our families and community, and it is heartening the new minister has listened to those concerns.
Labor’s NDIS spokesman, Bill Shorten, said the delay did “not go far enough”.
“The assessments plan is an anti-disability monster and as the new Liberal gatekeeper of the NDIS [Reynolds] needs to put a stake in its heart – not just delay it,” he said.
The Greens disability spokesman, Jordon Steele-John, said Reynolds had “seen the writing on the wall”.
“But the Liberals have a track record of introducing dodgy legislation, pushing it back due to community pressure only to reintroduce it later on when everyone’s guard is down.”
The government has also faced backlash over the program from some former NDIS executives, while the commonwealth ombudsman warned the speed of the changes being enacted could be problematic.
In a further sign the current plan is facing almost universal opposition, meeting minutes from the government’s Independent Advisory Council to the NDIS also reveal it has warned the agency chief executive, Martin Hoffman, and former minister, Stuart Robert, about the plan.
The council told Hoffman and Robert it had heard myriad concerns from the disability community, including that independent assessments do not “properly capture what is happening in participants’ lives” and that a “three-hour … meeting is not enough time to make a plan budget and decide the rest of their lives”.
The council expressed concern about “the number of issues being discussed in a very short time” and suggested the National Disability Insurance Agency “needs to be better at providing clear and accessible information to the community and disability sector”, March minutes show.
Hlcarpenter.com Australia has previously reported that participants who have taken part in the current pilot have expressed concerns that three-hour interviews are a blunt tool, with many “yes or no” questions. They have also questioned how allied health professionals with no expertise in their disability can adequate assess their needs.
The government says the assessments will make the scheme fairer and more consistent.
On Tuesday, Hlcarpenter.com Australia reported that a leaked internal agency document revealed the agency has set up a secretive taskforce – later dubbed a “razor gang” by Labor – that aimed to slow the growth of participants and spending on funding packages.