Thursday, 12 November 2020
National Disability Insurance Scheme Amendment (Strengthening Banning Orders) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I'm calling for a complete review of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. There are a lot of government departments and schemes that need to be reviewed, but the NDIS is the worst. I have called for a review in years gone by, but, despite numerous reports of problems, this colossal government agency just keeps travelling along with its faults dragging Australia deeper into the muck. It is plagued by poor administration that has enabled rorting. It needs to be changed considerably to stop the wasting of precious money that Australia cannot afford to waste.
The NDIS was established to manage the funds and support measures for the disabled. The support is in recognition of the specialist needs of those who have disabilities to help them live a normalised life. On the surface, it is a wonderful concept that seeks to address a need that any well-rounded and caring society should take care of, but the NDIS that has materialised is failing. It is costly. Money is not distributed fairly to those who need it, and others are paid well in excess of what they should be. It has been besieged by criminals, including organised crime groups and also those ever-present unscrupulous vultures who always seem to loiter around, ready to exploit any loopholes in any financial support handout system. Some clients are able to self-manage their payment regime in cases requiring no proof that their expenditure is legitimate.
In the name of fairness and financial responsibility, we need to make changes. Previous reviews have suggested the scheme has been plagued by delays in decisions for applicants. The system is confusing to understand and lacks flexibility in the use of funds. The NDIS costs Australian taxpayers an extraordinary amount of money. For the year ending 30 June, funds of $24 billion had been committed to services and support. Unfortunately, where there is big money, rorting follows close behind, and the stories of abuse of the system are beyond belief. The media has reported hundreds of cases of fraud each year by participants, providers, organised crime groups and dodgy individuals targeting the system to skim sufficient funds illegally. I have personally been advised of several examples of rorting, and the dollars are huge. They add up to being very big, very quickly.
It's no wonder that the NDIS is seen as a noose around Australia's economic neck. Unless there is a review and major changes are made, it will spell more disaster for the economy. Imagine this: $190,000 per year is paid to a diabetic patient who lost their leg as a result of their mismanagement of their health, another boarding-house resident is paid $160,000 annually and another person over 30 years of age is paid $40,000 annually for having a speech impediment. I do not believe a speech impediment should qualify for disability payments under the NDIS. These are huge payments that help to eat very quickly and deeply into the money available for the needy. I was told about one NDIS client, admittedly with a serious lymphatic condition, who was living well beyond an average life, living in absolute luxury, thanks to her payments. The client has happily spruiked Gold Coast holidays in a penthouse apartment and apparently will have a house built for her in which she can live rent free until her dying day—totally unacceptable. But, wait—there's more. The client also had enough money to be able to pay for a corporate box at a major sporting event and invite a dozen of her friends to join in the revelry. The client had no problems telling everyone that the extravagance was paid for by the NDIS, which in fact comes from the taxpayer.
These are some of the stories from a program that is supposed to help our most vulnerable and needy. Why are examples like this allowed to eventuate? Where are the checks and balances and the investigations of these sorts of examples? Is this the sort of flawed support system we are happy to allow and provide with taxpayer funds? The losers under the current NDIS are those forgotten clients who have fallen through the cracks and need genuine support to deal with their disabilities and injuries, and the taxpayers who fork out the billions each year to fund this colossal government agency.
The number of people supported by the NDIS has been growing at confronting rates, from 89,000 in 2016-17 to 172,000 in 2017-18, to 286,000 in 2018-19 and to 392,000 in 2019-20. We can brace for an even bigger number of beneficiaries in the current financial year. Figures given to me by the NDIS show it is expected to be approximately 450,000 people. If we are paying more than $24 billion for 391,999 people, then we are being taking for a ride by a very incompetent department. The fear is that too many of them will be overcompensated and not enough resources will be available to double-check applicants for funds and to hunt down fraudsters. That growth in clients comes with increased opportunities for this abuse. Australia, and the world, have experienced a devastating pandemic this year. We will soon have a debt of more than $1 trillion. As such, Australia needs to be much more prudent with its spending. It does not have the money to keep throwing funds away to any government program, especially the high-cost NDIS, without genuine security that identifies wastage and then makes the hard decisions to clean it up.
All this spending comes as we are unable to provide proper support for our war veterans. If you lose your leg due to your own poor health practices, you get a handsome NDIS payout. But I am constantly fighting for those defence personnel who served our country to get compensation for their injuries. Further to that, we have age pensioners who also at times are overlooked to receive the support they need. They have worked all their lives, paid their taxes and, when it comes to mobility and health problems in their retirement years, their lifelong contributions to Australia are waved away. The hypocrisy is outrageous.
All these factors support the need for a thorough review of the costs and proceeds of the NDIS. There are now approximately over 10,000 providers, with more and more signing up because of how lucrative it is. My suggestion is that approval for new providers should be made not by an everyday quack but only by a government approved doctor.
Here are some examples of the problems from media reports. In 2017, thousands of children with no identified deficits compared to the normal range for their age and development delays received funding, while some other Australians with profound disabilities fell through the gaps. On that issue, I believe children with developmental delays should not be receiving funds from the NDIS; they can access other programs.
In early 2018, 313 tip-offs of fraudulent or dodgy dealings were made to the NDIS agency, and about 100 were classified as alleged fraud. Later that year, The Australian reported that more than 500 allegations of potentially fraudulent payments and financial anomalies were being investigated by the NDIS. Just months later, the government announced a new task force of 100 people to crackdown on fraud, including by organised crime operators, some of which had siphoned tens of thousands of dollars from client support packages. In October, one operator was charged with stealing $480,000 worth of funding from the scheme in just two months. And the list goes on.
In 2019, The Weekend Australian revealed that in a nine-month period almost 40 providers had their registrations terminated for fraud and compliance issues. In May that year, members of an organised crime syndicate were arrested after gaining at least $1.1 million from the NDIS, and they splurged that money on sports cars. The Courier Mail then reported that a dodgy day care operator pocketed $2.3 million in taxpayer funds through the NDIS—just one of 38 family day care operators across Australia who were sanctioned for claiming a total of $3.6 million from the scheme to care for disabled kids. In August, a whistleblower within the system reported how funds that were meant to support the disabled were used on lavish dinners, five-star hotels and chauffeur driven limousines. In February this year, a Sun-Herald report suggested that thousands of dollars are stolen every day from clients, with the money simply reimbursed without being investigated. It also reports that as many as one-in-10 claims in the NDIS can be fraudulent. And, in August, a Sydney doctor was investigated for large-scale fraud. He falsified reports, overcharged for services and neglected the best interests of clients in the use of allotted NDIS funding. It's no wonder the scheme is in such disarray.
On the topic of this bill, it does fix several shortfalls in the system, particularly in helping to ensure the quality of care being given to the needy is up to an acceptable standard. The bill introduces powers for the safeguards commissioner to be able to ban service providers who pose an immediate danger to the health or safety of a client. In the past, some of the workers were sacked for poor performance and were subsequently out of the system before they could be legally banned. It didn't stop them returning to the sector at some point, even if they aren't suited to the tasks.
The bill also makes sure of the banning of questionable service providers and their staff who are unsuited to providing these services. It allows those people to be banned, even though they are no longer currently working in such a role. The safeguards commissioner can also issue such bans to those who have not yet operated in the role of a provider but are deemed to be unsuitable for taking on such a role. These strengthened banning powers are welcomed to protect those who, through the purpose and nature of this sector, are vulnerable. However, it is important to address the other issues I have raised here.
The NDIS must be improved to make sure we are not wasting money and that those truly in need of help are able to receive that help. With much of the rorting, the Australian government has apparently seen fit just to look the other way. This is unacceptable. I have just come from a meeting with the minister, who assured me that my concerns are being taken seriously and that they will be looking at this. I have a lot of confidence in the minister that this will be addressed. It is time to get serious. The NDIS must be reviewed. The rorting needs to stop. The problems must be fixed.