‘Robo-planning’ NDIS assessments would save government $700m | National disability insurance scheme

The introduction of independent assessments to the National Disability Insurance Scheme would save the federal budget $700m and lead to smaller funding packages “on average”, according to secret government documents that contradict Coalition claims the policy is “not a cost-cutting measure”.

Under proposed changes to the eligibility assessments process, participants would undergo a three-hour interview with a government-contracted allied health professional instead of submitting reports from their own treating specialists.

Asked in March whether the policy was aimed at finding efficiencies within the $22bn scheme, the former minister, Stuart Robert, insisted: “This is not a cost-cutting measure … at all.”

But confidential documents seen by Guardian Australia reveal the National Disability Insurance Agency last year estimated using “independent functional assessments” for planning and access decisions would “reduce the forward estimates by $0.7 billion”. That’s $700m over four years.

The documents confirm, for the first time, that the agency expects that using the assessments to determine the budgets for participants’ plans will lead to “on average a reduction in the funds allocated for people’s supports”.

It is likely to intensify calls from Labor, the Greens and the disability community for the government to scrap the proposal, which has sparked outrage in recent weeks and prompted the new minister, Linda Reynolds, to delay the rollout.

The estimate was offered in the context of internal concerns about “significant” sustainability pressures including a projected budget blowout. Independent assessments formed part of a suite of cost-cutting measures considered by government ministers last year, the documents reveal.

Robert announced the assessments policy in August 2020.

It means new applicants will need to undertake an interview with an allied health professional before being granted access to the scheme – while the existing 430,000 participants would also undergo an assessment.

Reynolds declined to answer specific questions posed by the Guardian about the contents of the documents, including the policy’s impact on the budget and funding packages.

In a statement, she said: “Independent assessments are all about ensuring fairer and more equitable access and planning for the Australians the insurance scheme was designed to help.”

The minister reiterated she was “consulting with NDIS providers and participants around the country about independent assessments”.

“I won’t be finalising the implementation of independent assessments until after the trial is complete and I have met again with state and territory ministers in July,” she said.

An NDIA spokesperson referred questions to Reynolds’ office.

Last week, Reynolds said she would pause the rollout of the assessments, which was due to begin in the middle of the year, but there is no suggestion it will not go ahead once that is completed.

At a parliamentary hearing on Friday, Bruce Bonyhady, the inaugural chairman of the NDIA and an original architect of the scheme, blasted the policy as “robo-planning”.

“Robo-planning will blow up the NDIS,” Bonyhady said, adding the “real driver of all this is cost-cutting”.

“The fact that robo-planning has reached the current stage of implementation is a disgrace,” he said. “It should have been stopped long before now.”

Publicly, the agency has argued the free assessments will make the scheme fairer by reducing inequality and improving the consistency of funding package decisions.

“Independent assessments are not an attempt to remove supports for people with permanent and significant disability or to prevent them from accessing the NDIS,” the agency said in its submission to a parliamentary inquiry.

“Rather, the rollout of independent assessments is intended to ensure that the people the NDIS was intended to support are supported to become participants and go on to receive a personalised plan budget which they can then use flexibly, with more choice and control.”

However, the agency has previously linked the assessments to the scheme’s sustainability, a euphemism for budget pressures, including in its last annual report. It is understood the issue of costings for the policy was raised by state and territory ministers at a disability reform council meeting chaired by Reynolds last week.

The agency has already signed contracts with eight companies worth $339m to carry out the assessments.

It has been roiled by leaks in recent weeks, as it faces internal and public opposition to the new assessments policy and a wider overhaul of the NDIS Act that determines who can access the scheme and what supports they can receive.

An internal NDIA memo, published in full by Guardian Australia last week, outlined the creation of a new Sustainability Action Taskforce, which was quickly dubbed a secret “razor-gang” by critics.

Separate leaked documents revealed the agency hired an “external research company” to help create a “new narrative” to craft its promotion of controversial policy changes, including the introduction of independent assessments.

The focus group research found staff were “struggling” and were concerned they “cannot adequately support participants” through the changes.

It also found the agency needed to be more transparent about scheme “sustainability” “even if the outcome is not liked – transparency is important”.

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