Australia’s disability discrimination commissioner has revealed he took part in the national disability insurance scheme trial of independent assessments and found the experience “unsatisfactory”.
The government has sparked backlash among disability advocates over its proposal to introduce free but mandatory assessments conducted by outsourced allied health professionals to determine eligibility for the scheme.
The disability discrimination commissioner, Ben Gauntlett, told Senate estimates on Thursday he took part in the trial with “utmost good faith”.
“Unfortunately I found the process unsatisfactory and provided that feedback to the agency,” he said.
Asked by the Greens senator Jordon Steele-John what was “unsatisfactory” about the assessments, he said it “assumed a perfect interaction between the person with disability and the person that was assessing them”.
He said there was no “cross-check” to ensure that the information was accurate.
Gauntlett added that he felt his independent assessments report “did not reflect accurately what I felt I had informed the person assessing me of”.
Though he did not criticise the policy of independent assessments in general, Gauntlett said the model being proposed by the government was “different” to the policy proposed by the Productivity Commission.
He also said he had concerns about whether the current process being used in the trial was “compliant” with articles of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Gauntlett said the lack of a review process could also cause a “significant practical concern”. The government has confirmed that people can ask for a review of their NDIS plan or access decision, but cannot have the independent assessment itself reviewed at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Guardian Australia revealed last week that a nine-year-old girl’s independent assessment report suggested she had no mobility concerns, despite the fact she uses a wheelchair. Her use of a wheelchair was noted elsewhere in the report.
Gauntlett said he hoped the NDIS minister, Linda Reynolds, would consult widely with the disability community, a commitment she has already made.
“There is quite clearly to a need to review the model of independent assessments that is being used,” he said.
Reynolds has said she is committed to the policy, but will consult widely on the way the assessments are conducted before introducing legislation to parliament.
A parliamentary inquiry examining the policy has heard complaints from advocates that the assessors are not required to have specialist knowledge of the NDIS participant’s disability.
This is because the assessments will be conducted using a range of assessment tools – essentially questionnaires – which will be fed into an algorithm.
Quizzed on Thursday about the policy, Reynolds told the ABC she was committed to putting the scheme on a “sustainable growth trajectory” and address inequities within the system.
Guardian Australia reported last month that government documents from last year, before Reynolds became minister, estimated the policy would reduce plan sizes on average and deliver budget savings.
“I have not seen that, I have not seen that particular modelling, because that is actually not the main focus of the independent assessments,” Reynolds said on Thursday.
Asked if people would get less for the packages, she replied: “Not necessarily as a result of this process.”
Asked why the proposal was being pursued then, she said: “Australians expect us to best manage taxpayer dollars.”
Reynolds has called for “hard discussions” about the future of the scheme, pointing to a massive growth in costs forecast in the latest budget.
Asked if she would release the NDIS’s financial sustainability report, which includes actuarial advice that underpins those budget estimates, Reynolds told the ABC she was seeking advice.
“I’m having a look at that at the moment, because there are some sensitivities in relation to some of the actuarial data,” she said.
“I always come from the perspective of release as much as we can.”
Prof Bruce Bonyhady, a former chairman of the agency that runs the scheme, has called for the report to be released.