The Victorian government has accused the commonwealth of launching a scare campaign about the financial sustainability of the national disability insurance scheme in order to “sell” its “flawed independent assessments robo-planning” policy.
In a sign of increasing animosity between the states and the commonwealth over the landmark scheme, Victoria’s disability minister, Luke Donnellan, said the federal government was guilty of attacking the “very principles on which the NDIS was built”.
His comments come after the NDIS minister, Linda Reynolds, told Guardian Australia this week the scheme was set to cost more than Medicare. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, entered the fray on Thursday saying the scheme had become “much larger than the early vision intended”.
“This is the Morrison government’s second attempt to sell their flawed independent assessments robo-planning scheme, which attacks the very principles on which the NDIS was built,” Donnellan said.
“Firstly, the previous NDIS minister said for months it was all about fixing inequity in clients’ plans. Now the federal government says it’s concerned about the sustainability of the NDIS – when only in June last year the NDIA [national disability insurance agency] reported that the scheme was on track.”
Donnellan accused the federal government of using an underspend in the scheme to prop up the budget and said it was telling people with disability “they are getting too much support”.
In recent weeks, leaked documents have revealed the NDIA has launched a secretive “sustainability action taskforce”, described as a “razor gang” by Labor.
Guardian Australia also reported that secret government documents indicated that independent assessments would reap budget savings and lead to smaller plan sizes “on average”, contradicting the former minister Stuart Robert who suggested it was not about “cost-cutting”.
Although Reynolds insisted this week the main aim of the policy – which has outraged disability groups – was to improve inequities in the scheme, Morrison directly linked it to scheme sustainability.
He also repeated Reynolds’ suggestions that government data showed the commonwealth’s contributions to the jointly funded scheme would increase to 55% this year and 58% in 2022.
Package sizes, payments to participants and participant numbers were growing “beyond earlier forecasts”.
“The growth in payments is in part the result of planners not having access to consistent quality information when making their funding decisions, as well as a lack of clarity on what is and what isn’t paid for under the national disability insurance scheme,” he said.
“You’ll hear plenty of others who will argue that the sky should be the limit but we all know that that is not a realistic objective.”
Disability groups and NDIS observers have long argued there was little transparency over its actuarial data, and a Senate inquiry heard this week that freedom of information requests for its financial sustainability report had been denied.
It is understood states and territory disability ministers, who meet regularly with their federal counterpart, have also been denied access to the agency’s actuarial data on projections of NDIS costs.
Prof Bruce Bonyhady, the inaugural chair of the NDIA, told a parliamentary inquiry last month the “cost estimates for the full scheme were based on a very small sample of people, around which there was a reasonably wide margin of error”.
There were “literally hundreds, if not thousands, of assumptions that go into the estimate of a scheme’s sustainability,” he said.
“But we have never seen the financial sustainability report from the scheme actuary which would detail those assumptions and enable them to be properly scrutinised.
“It’s quite possible that the current concerns about scheme costs might be completely misplaced.”
The NDIA’s 2020 annual report, released in October, stated that scheme projections were “in line with the estimates shown in the 2017 Productivity Commission report on NDIS costs at 2021–22”.
This was after “allowing for costs not included in the Productivity Commission estimate”, it said.
Reynolds has claimed that previous underspends had masked “the upward trajectory of future spending in the scheme”, while another former NDIA board member, John Walsh, who was also involved in the scheme’s design, has backed the government’s warnings.
People With Disability Australia president Samantha Connor said the NDIA had spent the past six months “trying to ram through changes” without meaningful input from disabled people that will “almost certainly result in perverse outcomes”.
“We need a seat at the table to talk about any proposed changes to our NDIS, to have full access to the scheme’s raw data, to enter into legitimate co-design processes if any changes are required, and to be sufficiently resourced in order to do so,” she said.