09/12/2021 - 08:00

High hopes for disability office

09/12/2021 - 08:00

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A new Office of Disability will bridge the gap between the NDIS and providers and participants in WA.

High hopes for disability office
Don Punch became disability minister earlier this year. Photos: David Henry

Amid questions over the financial sustainability of providers and the services available to people in the regions, the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme has not been entirely smooth sailing.

However, a state budget commitment to establish a specialised Office of Disability to advocate on behalf of Western Australian providers and participants using the NDIS has given the sector hope that some of these issues could be ironed out.

Established with the promise of $13.4 million over four years, the office will sit within the Department of Communities and provide sector stewardship, advice to the director general and minister, and advance the inclusion and participation of people with disability.

The office will also assist in the implementation, monitoring, and development of the state disability strategy.

About 27 full-time equivalent staff will work in the office until the NDIS has been fully rolled out, when the number of staff will be reduced to 20.

Disability Services Minister Don Punch said the idea for the office came from consultation with the sector.

“The sector itself identified an ongoing need to have involvement and responsibility for the state disability plan,” Mr Punch told Business News.

“The notion of a high-level office that has a link direct to the director general and can provide advice to the minster was very important from the sector’s point of view, and that’s how we have designed it.

“The other side of it came out of that need to recognise we needed expertise in how we manage the relationship at a state level with the NDIS on behalf of both the service providers within the industry.”

While the rollout of the NDIS took away direct responsibility for servicing a large group of people in the disability community from the WA government, the state still has primary responsibility for the disability portfolio.

The Disability Services Commission oversaw the sector before the NDIS and a related state government department restructure.

In 2017, it was integrated into the Department of Communities, and its duties carried out by the Disability Services division.

Also in that year, WA agreed to transition from its state-run system to the NDIS.

The move meant shifting from a rations-based model to a market-led system under which people with disability were put in charge of how they spent their funding.

Mr Punch said the office would act as a steward of the state’s investment in the NDIS and ensure it was getting value for the $900 million it contributed each year.

“On the one hand, because we are contributing very significantly to the NDIS, it supports making sure that investment reflects the needs of the people within WA,” he said.

While Mr Punch said he believed the NDIS to be successful in its mission to enable all people to live life on their terms, the transition had presented challenges that needed to be addressed including the assessment process for NDIS eligibility, plan reviews, support needs of people with complex disabilities, and the sector’s sustainability overall.

Mr Punch said the office would voice WA-specific issues, including ensuring people in regional and remote areas had access to services.

“Particularly, we have identified some of the challenges of providing services in remote and regional WA so [are] looking at models of service, supporting the NDIS to get a better understanding of the needs of people in those communities.

“It’s especially important to understand the needs of people in Aboriginal communities,” he said.

Mr Punch said the NDIS utilisation rate in WA was as low as 35 per cent in some regional areas.

“A person might be eligible for $60,000 worth of services but they are only accessing $25,000 or $30,000 worth, simply because the market is not there to provide the support they need,” Mr Punch said.

“That becomes more of a problem the more remote we go from major regional centres or from the metropolitan area.

“That’s a challenge we are working with the Commonwealth on to look at how we might adapt the service model to better meet the needs of those people at a community level in remote areas.”

Jacquie Daisley says leadership at the office will be important. Photo: David Henry

National Disability Services WA has been a vocal advocate for the creation of the Office of Disability on behalf of the providers.

The body’s acting state manager, Jacquie Daisley, said the sector had high hopes for the Office of Disability.

Ms Daisley agreed it was critical to secure the provision of services for people when the market failed.

Under the system’s current format, people could be left without support if a provider ceased to operate or if companies could not viably service a regional area.

A ‘provider of last resort’ needed to be established.

“That’s a really tricky dilemma that we need to work through,” Ms Daisley told Business News.

“When there is no market, what happens to those people?

“And I think that’s a conversation we really need to be having with the state government and through the Office of Disability.”

Ms Daisley said she hoped the office would provide strong advocacy when the NDIS failed to serve participants in the state, especially given the significant funding the state provided the scheme.

“If we are putting in $1 billion into the NDIS every year and more money into tier two services like information linkage and capacity building, we have got to make sure we are getting our value for money for that and the best for people with disability,” she said.

“If things aren’t working, we actually need our state government, through the Office of Disability, to be saying, ‘We are not getting value for money from our WA taxpayers’ dollars that benefit people with disability in this state’.”

She hoped the office would ensure the state did not forget about its disability responsibilities outside of the NDIS.

“Having that really strong for-purpose office is a critical link in that process otherwise we may end up like some other jurisdictions have where the states have really stood back and left it to the NDIS,” Ms Daisley said.

“Ultimately, it’s people with disability and their families who have had to carry the disadvantage of that because the state governments, the ACT particularly, have stood back and said, ‘We don’t have to do anything anymore’.

“Yet access and inclusion across all states and territory services are really important.”

Ms Daisley stressed the success of the office would come down to how it was implemented.

She said the office needed to employ knowledgeable people with previous experience in the sector.

“It’s really important we maintain that fit-for-purpose office of disability, which is headed up by someone who knows what they are doing, who has a really good understanding of disability in WA as well as how it operates nationally and has got the confidence of people with disability and the sector,” Ms Daisley said.

Profile and prominence would be important to advocate for the sector, she said.

“From National Disability Services’ perspective, we didn’t want the Office of Disability as this little unit within this massive department that had no profile and had no grit.”

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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