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Disability advocates still worried despite proposed changes to NDIS independent assessments

Disability advocates say proposed government agency changes to a hugely controversial overhaul of the National Disability Insurance Scheme have not placated their concerns.

The National Disability Insurance Agency proposed “substantial changes” to the Morrison government’s independent assessment reforms in an interim paper on Wednesday evening after months of criticism and opposition from the disability community.

The reforms would see NDIS participants and would-be participants assessed by a government-contracted allied health professional – rather than their own treating specialists with whom they already have a relationship – to help determine the support they receive.

Concerns have been raised about a lack of genuine government consultation and transparency, the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model being culturally inappropriate, and the reforms undermining the principles of choice and control the NDIS was built on.

The NDIA’s proposed changes were announced the same day a review from the independent advisory body on the NDIS said independent assessments should not go ahead in their “current form”.

The agency said its proposed changes include conducting more consultation with disability groups to improve assessor training, refining the assessment tools used, and allowing participants more scope to challenge the findings of an assessment.

Additionally, participants could be given more choice in who conducts their assessment – including their “professional specialty, gender and cultural characteristics” – and be allowed to use pre-existing information from treating professionals as part of the process.

They could also be allowed time to review the evidence provided in their assessment to ensure it is accurate.

However, Giancarlo de Vera, senior policy manager at People with Disability Australia, said the proposed changes don’t go far enough.

“From our perspective, it is just tinkering around the edges,” he told SBS News.  

“It doesn’t feel like they’re hearing the clear message that we don’t want this. We really need the minister to go back to the drawing board.”   

Mr de Vera said the changes still don’t address the fundamental concern for participants of an unknown person being able to properly grasp the nuance of someone’s disability in a short period of time.

“The prevailing concern is that people with disability don’t want independent assessments in any form,” he said. 

“It doesn’t do enough to demonstrate to us that the people will understand the nuance of our disability to the point where they can make a comment on our functionality and level of impairment.”

Dwayne Cranfield, CEO of the National Ethnic Disability Alliance, said concern also remained for participants who may face language or cultural barriers.

“You are still forcing people [into this],” he told SBS News. 

“The whole premise of the NDIS was choice and control for people with a disability over their lives.” 

Mr Cranfield said he is worried pushing ahead with independent assessments – even with proposed changes – could deter people from accessing the NDIS.

“We are going to have a whole lot of non-participants because of the fear of this process,” he said.   

The release of the proposed changes came ahead of a crucial meeting between federal and state and territory officials on Friday.

NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds, who announced in April the rollout of independent assessments would be placed on hold, intends to seek “in-principle support” for independent assessments from her state and territory counterparts at the meeting.

The federal government has argued the reforms are needed to address inequities in the scheme and to place the NDIS on a “sustainable growth trajectory”.

The NDIS’ financial sustainability report, released on Saturday, estimated the scheme would cost $60 billion a year by 2030. 

Senator Reynolds told the ABC on Thursday she wanted to create a more equitable system. 

“This is genuinely not about cutting costs – this is about making the scheme fairer,” she said.

“There were genuine and real concerns about this process. We do need more time to address these concerns and to get the process right.”  

Findings released this week from a pilot of the initial assessment model found 70 per cent of around 900 participants and carers reported their experience was “excellent”, “very good” or “good”. 

The NDIA was grilled in Senate estimates last year about the integrity of an earlier pilot’s results

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