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

The federal government is trying to contain the exploding cost of the landmark National Disability Insurance Scheme – especially difficult given the fears of vulnerable people who rely on it.

National cabinet’s decision last week to aim to reduce the cost increase from the current 14% annually down to 8% by 2026 received a sharp reaction from disability advocates. This financial year the NDIS will cost more than $35 billion, two thirds paid by the federal government.

The government has flagged areas for change and there is also a review being done.

In this podcast, former Paralympian Kurt Fearnley, chair of the National Disability Insurance Authority, which implements the scheme, discusses its issues and the road ahead.

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

“There are parts of the scheme that would require pretty fundamental reform” – but that reform will need to “walk hand in hand” with participants.

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

“This scheme has been working for a lot of communities. Unfortunately, it’s also had its complications with ensuring that we are engaging with First Australians in a way that is appropriate, that allows the Indigenous Australians the ability to be able to thrive on this scheme.”

“So there’s lots of areas of reform, but it will all hinge on whether or not we’re able to create a system that has the participants’ voice heard at every step.”

A key area of reform is making the scheme less complex. Fearnley recounts a situation he experienced recently as an example.

One mother “broke down, she was in tears describing her interactions between the agency and a service provider. We encourage an evidence-based approach to the experience of the child within the scheme. And then this parent is speaking about how they felt like their child was considered an ATM to a third party service.

"Choice and control is beautiful to one and tough for others. We have built this incredible system […] It is there servicing 590,000 people, all with there unique experience with disability, and it’s the choice and control element that I think could be overwhelming for a new participant.

"It’s fundamentally reforming in an incredible, bloody amazing, empowering concept for an individual with disability who was never, in many instances, never asked what they want out of 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 pathway over a long period of time. And that’s where I think the choice and control element is amazing. But I do think it has its challenges in other parts.”

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra.

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Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.