Disability Support Can't Be Done On Contract

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Recent concerns about NDIS funding, raised by the peak body for disability services, point to emerging challenges for the scheme.

Speaking to The Guardian, Ken Baker from National Disability Services said that "prices are just too low", particularly for one-to-one support. These prices are the maximum amount the NDIS will pay so people with disabilities can have the personal support they need.

The NDIS released the full price list for everything from wheelchairs to wages some months ago, with service providers raising similar issues at the time. Andrew Richardson, the CEO of House With No Steps, explained that the rate for disability workers was far too low, but remained hopeful of change as the NDIS absorbed feedback from the sector.

Disability sector workers are some of the lowest-paid, are mostly women, and are older. A 2011 Victorian report outlined the future for these workers as increasingly casualised, but also noted that the industry will grow substantially.

A recent conference looked in more detail at the workforce challenges for making the NDIS work. Several projects have been funded from the Practical Design Fund to specifically look at these issues and have reported back with similar themes; pay-rates are too low, career paths unclear or absent and many thousands of new workers will need to be found.

The Chair of the NDIS, Bruce Bonyhady, has been clear that he sees financial sustainability as a core role for the board. In a speech from June, he said:

"[I]n the absence of financial sustainability and ensuring that the NDIS is fiscally affordable and operates efficiently, the overwhelming support that the Scheme enjoys today throughout Australia will evaporate. And without community support for the full funding of the NDIS, people with disabilities will again be pushed to the margins of Australian society."

Bonyhady, whose background is in funds management, doesn't specify what is meant by financial sustainability, other than ensuring "that the boundaries of eligibility and reasonable and necessary benefits which are contained in the regulations are maintained".

So what is reasonable and necessary, and for whom?

Baker's comments probably reflect some pre-emptive lobbying on behalf of the sector, as the new government settles in. They also expose a potential flaw in the current NDIS design. At the heart of these quite moderate warnings is the way existing and future disability workers will be treated.

If the price (wage) that the NDIS will pay for delivering support is too low, how will the necessary workforce growth happen? Where will all the new workers come from if they can't earn an adequate wage? And what will this mean for the types of services that will be offered?

One possibility is that contracting may become prevalent, instead of people being employees. This could be through an agency or disability workers themselves becoming individual contractors, responsible for their own superannuation, tax and insurance. Workers would miss out on training and support, because if prices are not high enough to cover all employment related costs, they sure aren't going to cover luxuries like that.

So what is the Abbott Government likely to do? Given that other care workers, in aged and childcare, have had wage increases cancelled already, the signs aren't good. The new Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews, is on record supporting the UK-style Big Society approach to care work. He argues that State funding for not-for-profit groups can stifle creative, local responses to community needs:

"The act of giving, whether finances, services or counsel, becomes a professional activity and a function of the State, rather than an act of charity and love directed to fellow human beings."

This attitude towards the care sector relies on outdated notions of charity that erases decades of professional, innovative work. Care work may not have the glamour for the Government of jobs with high-viz vests, but the idea that it should be motivated by love, not a decent wage is ridiculous.

Not funding wages properly is a short-sighted and narrow approach to the idea of the NDIS being sustainable. The success of the NDIS depends on a professional, secure workforce, paid properly for their expertise.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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