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Linda Reynolds defends controversial leaked NDIS independent assessments marketing strategy

The Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has defended a leaked marketing strategy for controversial independent assessments reforms after Labor accused the government of attempting to trick the public into supporting the proposed changes.

The 21-page communication and engagement strategy produced by the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), which administers the scheme, came under fire on Friday for including a line that stated the government must be “seen” to have listened to the concerns of disability groups.

Labor’s NDIS spokesperson, Bill Shorten, said the document was evidence the current consultation process with participants and stakeholders was “nothing but a sham”.

In a Senate estimates hearing on Friday, NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds rejected that interpretation of the document, which she said she saw for the first time on Friday, describing it as an “honest assessment” of the issues raised by the public.

“It is designed to address concerns we have heard across the nation about the independent assessments process,” she said. “This is what we’ve heard and need to action and communicate.”

The report stated that sentiment towards the proposed challenges had “decreased with some stakeholders from neutral to negative” and that NDIS participants had “demonstrated strong, orchestrated opposition” to them.

“There are ongoing risks if the agency is not seen to have made changes in response to concerns raised in the consultation,” the report, first published by Nine newspapers and later released by Mr Shorten, read.

Senator Reynolds dismissed accusations that the line meant the NDIA wanted to be seen as listening to the concerns of stakeholders, as opposed to addressing them, telling the hearing she “did not believe for a second” that was the intention of the document.

“I would be pretty unhappy with the NDIA if I thought that is what they were doing,” she said. “To have been seen to have done it, they actually have to do it.”

Developing a communications strategy was “entirely normal” for a government agency, she added.

An NDIA representative told the hearing a team of five or six employees worked on the proposed plan, describing the reference to being “seen” to be listening as “us genuinely identifying that we need to make changes”.

The new laws set to bring in independent assessments, which have been widely criticised by the disability sector, were paused in April to make way for further consultation

The proposed changes would require NDIS participants to have their eligibility for funding under the scheme reassessed by a panel of government-contracted professionals. 

Senator Reynolds said she had heard the concerns of the community but some form of individual assessment was necessary to ensure the NDIS was fair for all participants.

“The system where we have annual reviews where [participants] have to fight line by line, year after year, is challenging, confronting, and it’s not allowing people to exercise choice and control,” she said.

“The data demonstrates absolutely, it is unequivocal, that the electorate where you live makes a difference and it shouldn’t. That is why we need independent assessments.”

Senator Reynolds confirmed that the proposed independent assessments would not return in the previous form, but there would be a “functional assessments” system developed through consultation. The assessments would allow for personalised budgets and greater flexibility of support, she said. 

In a statement on Friday, Mr Shorten accused the government of attempting to “steamroll through controversial independent assessments while faking consultation”.

“The documents make it clear current consultation with NDIS participants and stakeholders is nothing but a sham,” he said.

“Minister Reynolds has made up her mind what changes she wants to push through despite telling participants and the sector she will listen to their concerns.”

Calls for inquiry into 1,279 deaths

During the same hearing, NDIA chief executive Martin Hoffman and Senator Reynolds were questioned on whether there should be an inquiry into 1,279 NDIS-eligible people who died over a three-year period while waiting for a plan. 

The figure, first revealed in an earlier Senate hearing, includes deaths between July 2016 and September 2019. There is no suggestion the deaths are linked to a lack of disability support.

Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John called for an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the deaths.

“Is it not worth inquiring why 1,279 human beings, though they had been assessed eligible for the NDIS supports, passed away before receiving them?” he asked the hearing on Friday. 

“The question of causation … would be for the finding of an inquiry.”

Mr Hoffman told the hearing the deaths happened during the transition from state and territory support to the national scheme.

“They were continuing to get support during this time,” he said, adding an inquiry would “not be an appropriate use of resources”.

He conceded that the wait time between people being assessed for an NDIS plan and receiving support had previously been “too long” but the issue had since been addressed. 

About 80 to 100 NDIS participants die each week in line with national mortality rates, he added.

“Any death is regrettable, but in this case, the imputation that these people didn’t have any support and died waiting for support is mischievous,” Senator Reynolds said.

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