Interview with Minister Stuart Robert regarding NDIS figures and support centres in bushfire affected areas

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

Now, there's no doubt that the National Disability Insurance Scheme has been riddled with problems since it was first rolled out in 2013. Stories that we've heard about people abusing the system, about administrative bungles, and basically a lack of service. And now there's this: reports today that more than 1200 Australians have died in just three years while they were waiting for NDIS support, and that figure includes dozens of children - 65 of them in fact - and 35 of those were little ones aged 6 and under. Now, I understand a big nation-wide program like this would always have teething issues. We know that. But if these figures are correct they're simply unacceptable.

The Minister responsible for the NDIS is Stuart Robert. He is visiting Services Australia operations right now in [audio skip] Eden in New South Wales today, bushfire affected areas. And Stuart Robert is on the line for us.

Minister, hello to you.

STUART ROBERT:

How are you?

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

I'm well. I want to talk about the NDIS figures in a moment, but you've been to this Centrelink centre and the recovery support centre at Bega this morning. What's the response that you're getting from people in these bushfire affected areas?

STUART ROBERT:

Look, it's been superb. Australians really are an extraordinary group of citizens. I'm sitting in Eden now, having just been through Merimbula, hopped through to service centres, recovery centres. We've got 20 mobile support teams and mobile service centres out on the ground servicing Australians. So it's about connecting the families, [indistinct] with the team that's going- in fact arrived now in the Cobargo pub, to provide services and support to them. And there's a fair bit of expectation about how we can assist Australians. And there's a fair bit of faithfulness from Australians on the ground.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

And it's good to see because that's what we need, is help delivered fast. We don't want that red tape. Any frustration that you've witnessed?

STUART ROBERT:

No, because what we're doing for the first time ever is rather than operating just our seven or eight service centres, which are operating seven days a week, we've also put together 20 mobile teams that are actually getting out into communities - into pubs, into parks. Half of them are being deployed with the ADF into difficult areas, where Australians can go and get support. There are social workers now with them, there is Indigenous workers with them, there's NDIA working with them as well. So it's an all-of-government effort; not just an existing footprint in existing towns but out into as many communities as we can get to, so we can take the support to Australians.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

Yeah, well that's what we want to see. Now, let's turn our attention to the NDIS. We know it's had serious issues since the rollout started in 2013. Over the last three years, more than 1200 people reported today in the paper have dies while waiting for the NDIS under a Coalition Government. Those figures are disgraceful. Are they correct?

STUART ROBERT:

No. Not even remotely correct. And let me explain why. In reporting today that people have tragically passed away, the fact that they've passed away of course is correct, but no one was passed away waiting for the NDIS. Those figures are from July 2016 through to mid '19- or 2019. So from 3.5 years old to 6 months old. And they were people who were getting support by the states and territories as they transitioned to the NDIS. 2016, there were 30,000 participants; today, well over 320,000 participants as they transition from states and territories. But whilst people transition across to us they are receiving supports from the states and territories, where the responsibility lay.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

Well quoted in this article in the paper today is Beverley Rubenach, whose son Tim suffered severe epilepsy. He died from pneumonia while waiting for a special medical bed and a motorised wheelchair in 2018. She's quoted saying she's horrified that so many families have been through the same pain. Her son died. People have.

STUART ROBERT:

And that particular case, which is very tragic and he was receiving support from the Tasmanian State Government. He wasn't in the NDIS. Now, I understand the anguish that people have got, but right now if you call to access the NDIS, the access time wait is four days. Just four days.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

Four days for the program to be implemented though, or four days for what? What happens within that four-day period?

STUART ROBERT:

Four days for an Australian citizen to get access to the NDIS, where they sit down with local coordinators, look at what their support needs are, and then from there to develop a plan and to access the scheme. [Inaudible]…

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

[Talks over] Okay, four days, but then how long does it take for that plan to be implemented?

STUART ROBERT:

Well, right now it's an average of 77 days to implement a plan, but remember, in the last three and a half years - which is what's quoted in the media today - Australians were not without support, which is what you're assuming. They're getting support under existing state-based arrangements. So no one has unfortunately died because support wasn't available; that support was there from the states and territories while people transitioned into this world leading national endeavour.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

Are you happy with that timeframe though of an average of 77 days for the implementation? Is that timeframe short enough?

STUART ROBERT:

Yes, yes it is. Four days for access, the legislated timeline is-

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

[Talks over] But 77 days, you said, before it's implemented.

STUART ROBERT:

Yeah. The legislated timeline is 21 days to get access- so it's four days to access. It's then to sit down and look at what the person's needs, support goals are, and working through them to then put in place the plan for action. Now, it's always coming down from- on 1 June when I took command, in fact, end of May, it was 130 days; it's now down to 77 days, and I'm looking forward to further improvements. Likewise, access was 38 days on 1 June; it's now down to four days. So the Government's implemented a very strong plan here that is seeing time delays- and delays in access coming down dramatically.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

Well, Ms Rubenach who is quoted in this article is saying that there are documents after documents, letters after letters where people have pleaded with the Government. She is an example, and there are others that have also been on our show and on our radio station, have called in, where they've been wanting help. They're not happy with that timeframe, they don't agree with you, Minister, that 77 days is good enough.

STUART ROBERT:

This is a world leading scheme that no one's ever put in place before. A complex scheme where within five years 500,000 people will have individual specialised plan individually put for them. It's not just one government policy. So for four days' access when the legislated requirement is 21 days, and then now 77 days which is coming down - remember, six months ago it was 128 and coming down dramatically - shows enormous improvement in what is a very complex world-leading scheme.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

Alright. We've got Julian, actually, on the line for us now from Windsor who has been involved in this. Julian, hello to you.

CALLER JULIAN:

Hello.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

What's your experience?

CALLER JULIAN:

Yeah, some of those stats might be relevant today, like- but in my historical experiences, personally, that's been far from the case.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

What's happened with you?

CALLER JULIAN:

Well, we go on a waitlist, you get in touch. Once you apply, you get referred to a provider, and there you go into limbo. And we waited at least a month before we had to ring up and say: what's going on? And a local face group- Facebook groups were also saying the same thing for this particular provider, that there was just no checks and balances, there was no rigour around how quickly they turned around and contacted you back. Once they acknowledge the application, and sort of what you were getting at earlier, that's very different from getting rubber on the road and getting the help that you need.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

Alright Julian, thank you for the call. Minister, what do you say to Julian?

STUART ROBERT:

I'm more than happy to look at individual cases, but sitting across the entire job is to ensure that as many Australians get support and access as possible in the quickest possible time. And we've seen that-

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

[Interrupts] Alright, well, we'll get Julian's details and we'll see if you can follow up on that.

STUART ROBERT:

Absolutely. Absolutely. More than happy to follow up on any single case, because whilst systems are good, nothing's ever perfect.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

Alright, Minister, we thank you for your time today and good to see that the services are being rolled out on the ground in those bushfire-affected areas.

STUART ROBERT:

Great pleasure to talk to you.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:

Alright. The NDIS Minister Stuart Robert there.