The Morrison government is facing growing backlash from the disability community over a plan to introduce “independent assessments” to the national disability insurance scheme by the middle of the year.
Under the current process, applicants submit evidence from experts, including their specialists, and these reports are evaluated by the National Disability Insurance Agency.
From mid-2021 they will undergo an “independent assessment” by an allied health professional employed by one of eight contracted providers paid by the government.
The changes have sparked widespread backlash, including from a coalition of 25 disability advocacy groups which this week called for the plan to be scrapped.
They said their clients had expressed “acute fears regarding the risks to their health, wellbeing and access to reasonable and necessary supports”.
Labor, the Greens, and the Liberal MP Russell Broadbent have also suggested the change is a cost-cutting exercise, a claim strongly denied by the government.
The government argues that people with disabilities and their families are now forced to spend money collecting reports from experts. This has meant outcomes have been inconsistent and too often based on where a person lives or their access to health professionals.
This week the NDIS minister, Stuart Robert, released data showing plans were worth more on average in more affluent electorates in Adelaide, compared with less wealthy areas.
The government says the assessments – which will be free of charge and last about three hours on average – will create an easier, “streamlined” process.
Yet some people who have already taken part in an independent assessment have been highly critical of the plan.
Aaron Carpenter, a 41-year-old who lives with autism and agreed to take part in the pilot program, told the Guardian the experience had been “dehumanising”.
When he applied for the scheme, Carpenter’s own clinical psychologist wrote a report outlining the functional impact of his disability.
He questioned why his independent assessment was instead conducted by a physiotherapist.
Carpenter said he was asked many “yes or no” questions with “no context” and was at one point asked to complete a “task”, which was to make a cup of tea.
The NDIA has told participants the assessments include questions “about your life and what matters to you, and ask to see how you approach some everyday tasks”, and will also include some “standardised assessment tools”.
Carpenter said: “There’s a level of trauma that comes with disability and it’s through being made to be like a dancing monkey.
“We almost have to tell our story every single time we see somebody. To do that with a complete stranger, over the course of an hour or two, cannot capture us at all.”
After the assessment was finished, Carpenter applied to the NDIA for a copy of the independent assessor’s report.
He was dismayed when he saw a section titled “self-harm” was listed as “not-applicable”.
“When I have a bit of a sensory meltdown, it’s not nice,” he said. “I will punch things, I’ll punch myself, I’ll pull my clothing off.
“Probably my biggest impairment is being able to manage sensory input to the point where I don’t have meltdowns.”
Nicole Rogerson’s 25-year-old son, Jack, also lives with autism and took part in the pilot.
Rogerson, the chief executive of Autism Awareness Australia, told Guardian Australia she had “open mind” and understood why the agency had proposed the changes.
But she was so dissatisfied by the process she cut her son’s assessment short.
“It’s just sort of, sit down, the laptop comes out, out comes a manual of questions, and the testing begins,” she said.
“Some of the questions were about his capability in certain areas. And he’d be sitting there saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I can do a lot.’ It was, ‘Do you do all your own cooking?’ and he’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I can cook.’ There’s a big difference between whether you can cook something and, ‘Can you live independently?’
“He was answering incorrectly, not meaning to. And she’s noting all this down. My concern was, how good are these assessors? Do they know about autism, and/or intellectual disability? Are these answers going to be considered ‘the answers’?”
Rogerson said her son had been asked to take the garbage out during the assessment and eventually she could see him “starting to feel really low about himself”.
She was worried about how the assessments might impact the mental health of some participants.
“She’s asking him, ‘How does your disability affect your job? And he’s saying, ‘Oh, no, I’ve got a job. I’m fine.’
“And he’s looking at me like, why is this woman asking him to rate his own disability, of which he doesn’t really like talking about or think he has one.”
Last week the NDIA named the eight private providers who will undertake the assessments.
An NDIA spokesman said the providers had been contracted through an open tender and that participants would be “matched to a therapist or clinician that has the right skills, experience and training to complete the assessment”.
“All assessors will be qualified to administer the assessment tools,” he said.
Critics have compared the independent assessments to Abbott government reforms introduced for the disability support pension, which helped drive a large reduction in successful claims.
Jordon Steele-John, a Greens senator who lives with cerebral palsy, claimed the government was using the assessments as “a tool to reduce the number of people on NDIS”.
“That is their objective,” he told the Guardian. “They may dress it up in whatever bureaucratic language they want, but they want to knock people off the scheme.”
Labor’s NDIS spokesman, Bill Shorten, told a rally last month the government’s independent assessments plan was “nothing less than a complete all-out assault to undermine the NDIS”.
A spokesperson for Robert said the changes were based on the Productivity Commission’s original design for the scheme and on recommendations from the 2019 Tune review into the NDIS Act.
He rejected suggestions there had been no consultation, adding that over the past three months there had been “additional consultation to support the rollout of independent assessments”.
“These reforms, in addition to the already significant improvements to wait times, deliver on this roadmap and will set up the NDIS for the future – an NDIS that works for everyone,” he said.
All new applicants will need to undergo a mandatory independent assessment under the government’s plan, while the scheme’s existing 440,400 participants will be subjected to an assessment when their plan comes up for review.
The government is expected to release draft legislation shortly, before a bill is introduced to parliament that will allow the changes to come into effect by mid-2021.