Schools, mental health system need to improve disability support: Shorten

NDIS Minister Bill Shorten says schools and the mental health system need to better cater to people with disabilities so the ballooning National Disability Insurance Scheme can return to its original purpose of serving people with the most severe impairments.

Shorten said on Thursday when the scheme was the only port of call for people with disabilities, “we’re seeing the diagnosis follow the money”.

NDIS and Government Services Minister Bill Shorten singled out the school and mental health systems as areas where improved support was needed.

Alex Ellinghausen

The NDIS, which provides funding for more than half a million Australians, is one of the government’s top five most expensive programs and is facing further blowouts ahead of the May budget.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has flagged his support for tough decisions to limit the scheme’s cost trajectory, which is expected to hit $51.8 billion by 2026.

The scheme was projected to cost $34 billion this financial year but was already running $500 million above budget in January as more people joined. Children are the fastest-growing category of participants in the NDIS, which now covers about 10 per cent of boys aged five to seven, and autism is the most common diagnosis.

Shorten said the NDIS was designed and created for those with the most profound impairments, not for everyone with a disability.

“When the NDIS is the only lifeboat in the ocean, we’re seeing the diagnosis follow the money,” he said.

“I’m not blaming people for trying to get support for their kids or support for their family. I’m not blaming allied health professionals who want to be able to treat someone with a disability.

“But what we need to do is make sure that if you are an Australian living with a disability which is not that serious or that profound, that there’s still support for you.”

Shorten singled out the school and mental health systems as areas where improved support was needed.

“Parents of kids with learning delays and special needs shouldn’t be made to feel like bullies or outcasts in the school system,” he said.

Similarly, people in the community mental health system might not have such a severe impairment that they needed to be on the NDIS, but they might need more than just a chat with a psychologist, he said.

However, the minister said there was not a “crisis of cost” and that money would not be diverted from elsewhere in the budget to fund the scheme, nor would it be means-tested to curb spending.

“What I am saying is I think that there are pressures on the scheme, which we should tackle,” he said.

That included some service providers charging excessive prices and treating people like cash cows, while year-by-year reviews of participants created unnecessary anxiety.

“When the NDIS works well, it is changing lives … but when it’s bad, it’s working really badly,” he said.

“Our focus is to make sure every dollar gets through to the people for whom the scheme was designed … When we reform the scheme and make it better for participants, then I think we’re going to see benefits to everyone.”

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