NDIS announces reform amid 'soul-destroying' delays

The head of the National Disability Insurance Scheme has admitted its roll-out was flawed and announced a new reform will make face-to-face consultation standard practice.

The move comes as people with disabilities in Canberra and across the country speak out about "soul-destroying" delays within the scheme and advocates warn of support plans being "auto-renewed" without consultation or created by staff who haven't spoken to the participant.

With the need to approve more than 2000 plans a week, agency records from March showed 70 per cent of planning conversations were happening over the phone.

A Productivity Commission report released on Thursday sounded alarm bells at the speed of the scheme's roll-out, warning the quality of plans was suffering as the agency struggled to bring everyone into the NDIS by its 2020 deadline.

In the agency's new "pathway", set to be piloted over the coming months, face-to-face engagement will become standard for plan development. "Having learnded from the past", the agency will also upgrade its online portal to reduce administration headaches for service providers, after the old website was plagued by tech failures.

Chief executive of the National Disability Insurance Agency, Robert De Luca, said the reform came out of months of consultation with more than 300 people with disabilities, as well as their carers, families and providers. Their message was clear: the scheme was "not meeting expected standards".

"Implementing all improvements will take time, but we are committed to responding as quickly as possible to the feedback," Mr De Luca said.

"The agency is a world-first and there is no template to follow...It's important to get [it] right."

Fiona May, chief executive of ACT Disability, Aged and Carer Advocacy Service, said she was pleased the agency was doing away with planning conversations over the phone but said she was still concerned support funding would be decided "at arm's length".

With a government cap on its staff numbers, the agency has contracted out the role of local area coordinators (LACs) to private organisations, who act as a conduit between the agency and people with a disability, connecting participants to services.

Ms May warned the LAC role had since mutated into planners as well, with packages finalised by the agency, but the majority of plan discussions and reviews now being carried out by LACs, who have "no decision making power".

"Staff who have never met the person or heard their story will still be deciding how much support they get in their plan," she said.

"People will often say 'I met with my LAC, they were wonderful, they listened to me and then I got my plan back and nothing of what we talked about was in there', and that problem doesn't look like it's going away."

LACs regularly carry out planning discussions and reviews but all final support packages are approved by the NDIA, the agency confirmed.

ACT state manager for the National Disability Service Stephen Fox welcomed the reform but said the sector had had similar assurances in the past without concrete action and he was "not convinced about the order of what is proposed".

In a recent submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the scheme, the ACT government raised "significant" concerns, including about plans being automatically topped up without consulting participants.

"[This is] removing any possibility of the participant changing the goals articulated in their plan," the submission said.

The government also reported plan reviews being conducted over the phone to clients with mental health conditions without their support coordinator's knowledge and packages being cut by as much as 80 per cent since the full scheme kicked in last year.

The agency could not yet provide any more detail about how the pilot pathway will be rolled out but confirmed auto-renewal of plans was no longer happening.

From October 30, the agency will also increase funding for respite services that allow families to take a break from full-time caring. It did not provide further detail around the new arrangements before deadline, but it is understood the prices will be variable rather than fixed to better reflect staff penalty rates and clients with higher needs.

Dr Ken Baker, chief executive of National Disability Services, said the agency deserved credit for responding to looming shortfalls in respite care that would have been disastrous for families and people with a disability.

Having also advocated for the funding changes, ACT Minister for Disability Rachel Stephen-Smith welcomed the increase along with the agency reform. On Friday, she will raise more local concerns with the scheme when the joint standing committee into the NDIS sits in Canberra.

Do you know more? Get in touch at sherryn.groch@fairfaxmedia.com.au

This story NDIS announces reform amid 'soul-destroying' delays first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.