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Mental health is a growing industry in the disability sector
Mental health is a growing industry in the disability sector

THE National Disability Insurance Scheme faces another area of unexpected demand after identifying a gap in its responsibilities to cover early intervention for certain mental health disabilities.

The discovery came when staff were trying to approve 2350 individual support plans for the $22 billion NDIS every week.

In a March meeting of the scheme’s mental health working group, National Disability Insurance Agency strategic adviser Eddie Bartnik disclosed the new gap between what the Productivity Commission modelled for the scheme and what the law, drafted by the Gillard government, eventually allowed.

“The Productivity Commission initial work did not expect to see early intervention for psycho­social disability, however the legislation made this a possibility,” he said in a communique released to the federal government’s joint standing committee on the NDIS inquiry.

The NDIS is expected to have a budget of about $1.8bn for people with permanent and severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, which prevent them from functioning at work or in the community, but the agency does not know how much the legislative loophole will cost in the short term.

It is possible, as with early intervention requirements for children with developmental delay, that the measure will save lives and money in the long term.

The agency has modelled about 64,000 people with psychosocial disability who will be eligible for the NDIS, although the federal Department of Health suspects this number will be closer to 90,000.

Mr Bartnik said the agency considered building a new “gateway” to the scheme for people with mental illness, but it was considered “too risky with large amounts of unmet need at the boundary of the scheme”.

By its own estimate, there are 230,000 people with severe mental illnesses receiving state or federally funded community support.

Health Minister Greg Hunt recognised the emerging gap ­between existing systems and the new NDIS in the federal budget, offering $80 million to states and territories to prop up services if they matched the commitment dollar-for-dollar.

The Australian understands the dollar-matching has allowed some state ministers, who are aware of local funding shortfalls, to lobby the issue with their own treasurers.

The NDIS rollout is running behind schedule and must sign up an extra 350,000 people by 2019-20.

Scott McNaughton, of the NDIA, told the mental health working group in March that the organisation had to approve 2350 plans each and every week during the three-year transition to full rollout and it was relying on controversial phone-planning meetings to meet the designated target.

In March, 70 per cent of all planning conversations were being conducted by phone, a ­practice that has since been wound back by the agency’s executive ­following a litany of complaints about poor results.

A spokeswoman for the NDIA said there was “no evidence that the numbers of people entering the NDIS for psychosocial disability is above expected”.

“The National Disability Insurance Agency continues to work to clarify the circumstances of children and young people entering the scheme under psycho­social disability,” she said.