02/04/2020 - 09:55

Navigating disability change

02/04/2020 - 09:55

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Two long-standing disability services chief executives share how they have dealt with upheaval and disruption in the sector.

Navigating disability change
Gordon Trewern has been chief executive at Nulsen for 26 years. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Two long-standing disability services chief executives share how they have dealt with upheaval and disruption in the sector.

Having spent more than two decades in the disability sector, Gordon Trewern and Denise Michelsen are well acquainted with the need for flexibility and rapid responses in the fast-moving space.

Now chief executive of Nulsen Group, Mr Trewern says he has witnessed the evolution of disability services from custodial care, where everyone ate the same meals every day and wore the same clothes, to normalisation, to the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, where choice is championed.

“Being an old timer, I started in the sector when there was custodial care; I worked through the de-institutionalisation era where we closed down our big institutions,” Mr Trewern told Business News.

“We went through that period of normalisation, which was a great time when the sector in Western Australia said we could do better for these people with disabilities, we can treat them like other citizens and treat them with respect.”

In one of his first management positions at Nulsen Disability Services, which he joined in 1982, Mr Trewern was required to locate accommodation for those formerly living at government-operated Pyrton Training Centre, which was closed.

Mr Trewern became chief executive of the organisation in 1994.

At the time it employed just 60 staff, with that number having grown to 850 now.

In 2018, Nulsen Disability Services merged with Outcare and became Nulsen Group, diversifying and expanding its offering in the process.

Revenue in 2019 reached $51.8 million, making Nulsen Group the eighth biggest charitable organisation on the BNiQ database.

For the past 23 years, Ms Michelsen has been chief executive of Crosslinks, which was established after the closure of the Pyrton Training Centre to provide the daytime activities formerly available at the government-run facility.

Ms Michelsen has transformed the service from providing group activities with one staff member and four or five participants, to individualised care.

In addition, 12 group homes have been established during her tenure.

“When I came to Crosslinks I had about six staff and 20 participants; now I have 200 staff, and 250 to 300 participants,” Ms Michelsen told Business News.

Now a medium-sized provider, Crosslinks had annual revenue of $13.6 million in 2019, meaning it would be ranked as the 35th largest charitable organisation on the BNiQ database.

Ms Michelsen welcomed the changes that had occurred over the years, including the NDIS.

“The good is that we are all advocating for choice and control, so the person or their advocate has a lot more say over what that person can choose to do,” she said.

However, while Mr Trewern and Ms Michelsen fully support the introduction of the NDIS, both have concerns about the demands it placed on organisations.

“We have a reporting accountability to NDIS to make sure that’s done, but for us to do that we have had to put on more staff and the margin we are working on is less,” Ms Michelsen said.

Mr Trewern said complying with the NDIS had cost Nulsen nearly $4 million since it had been introduced, and he knew of several CEOs who were moving to other positions in the sector, or leaving it altogether, as a result of changes brought by the scheme.

“That money could’ve gone to more services or building more places for people to live in, so we have ended up with this highly bureaucratised system that is costing a lot to engage in the red tape,” he said.

With new quality and safeguarding measures, the Aged Care Royal Commission and the transition to the NDIS, Mr Trewern said the sector was going through a hard time and would lose service providers.

“If you look in WA, there are 69 providers that have budgets under $5 million; I think they are highly vulnerable,” he said.

From July 1, the sector will need to adapt again, this time to a new accreditation system to be introduced by the federal government.

Ms Michelsen said some organisations would have difficulty meeting the new quality and safeguarding measures.

“Now if we don’t meet the quality and safeguarding framework, we won’t get our accreditation, which means we can’t function,” she said.

“But the work associated with meeting the new guidelines, there’s been limited resources given to us, to actually help meet those, so once again, we have to find it within our existing resources.”

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