NDIS shonks put on notice

Anyone who has tried to organise a wedding will know the following story. Venues jack up the prices when they know it is somebody's big day. Everything from the room hire and caterer to the florist and the photographer charge a premium. It's known as a “wedding tax”.

And it is very annoying. Now imagine that you are someone who has a disability, someone who needs supports and equipment every day of their life. Not just for a one-off occasion. Every day. And the people supplying the services and equipment charge more when they know the customer has government funding - essentially a wedding tax.

I want to be clear. There are many, many good providers. The vast majority are decent people working for themselves or good businesses doing the right thing. But the shonks give the good ones a bad name.

You probably think people would not sink so low as to rip off vulnerable Australians on the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Well, they do.

There are some who I, politely, call the “rent seekers”. There are other descriptions but not appropriate for publication.

There is one case we know of where a participant, Christian, who, after doing his own research, found a company doubled the price of a bed-hoist remote just because he was a NDIS participant.

And it's not just equipment. Last year there was a case where a mum sent her teenage child on a camp for two nights. The costs for that came to $4200, supposedly for the carers. But I'll bet you anything it wasn't the carers who ended up with the bulk of that money.

In another case, NDIS participant Lynn suspected she was being taken advantage of by cleaners who were charging for shifts they never completed. She investigated and her support co-ordinator reported them.

I've been told anecdotes of providers setting higher rates for NDIS participants for services including physiotherapy and occupational therapy, or charging them a seven-day cancellation fee when they don't charge private patients for cancelling.

I mean, it happens anywhere unscrupulous people get a whiff of government money.

They come in hoping to make a quick buck before the government catches on to what they're doing.

It annoys me no end that just because you have a government package of support, that you are considered fair game to be ripped off.

This is not a victimless crime. Australians with disability have to work with planners to ensure their plan gives them the support they need to live a fulfilling life.

That might include things you or I may not even have to think about, from incontinence pads to modified utensils to larger items like wheelchairs and bed hoists, all paid for out of the package. The package will only stretch so far.

Imagine that you got a plan that would let you reach your goals. It might be something as big as being able to study independently at uni or something as run-of-the-mill as spending time with friends. Stuff a lot of us take for granted.

Then imagine a shonky provider charged so much for services that the package was not enough to achieve the reasonable outcomes you set for yourself.

I just wasn't prepared to let that keep happening so I worked with the Assistant Minister for Competition, Dr Andrew Leigh, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to see what we could do to put an end to these unfair practices.

I recently sent out letters to all NDIS participants and their nominees to update them on this development.

The news that action is being taken came as a huge relief.

I informed participants that the Government is taking a couple of measures, the first being a fair pricing taskforce. The ACCC will chair the taskforce which will also include the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission and the National Disability Insurance Agency.

The NDIS Commission will tackle illegal overcharging of NDIS participants. The ACCC will focus on investigating and clamping down on misleading conduct, unfair contract terms and anti-competitive agreements in support of the taskforce's work.

We have also upgraded the NDIS rules to make it clear overcharging is prohibited, and we have further legal changes coming to more strongly prohibit and punish such practices.

The commission's code of conduct clearly states that NDIS providers are not to charge participants more than they charge other people for the same service without good reason.

Anyone caught overcharging could face severe action imposed by the NDIS Commission. That includes permanent banning, civil financial penalties and, where fraud is suspected, urgent referral to the fraud fusion taskforce for criminal sanctions against the provider if found guilty.

We expect all providers to act with honesty, integrity and transparency when pricing their products and services for NDIS participants. They must be able to justify their pricing.

The letter I have sent to participants is designed to empower them in their choices so I encourage them to get in touch with my office if they need any clarification.

The shonks in the scheme have had a free ride for too long and people with disability and the Australian taxpayer deserve better.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 16 May 2024.