Guidelines were incorrectly altered to remove direct eligibility for all but most severe autism
The Turnbull government has accidentally published details of changes that would deny a huge number of autistic children direct access to the national disability insurance scheme, causing “outrage” among autism groups.
The autism community was left in shock this week after discovering a major alteration had been made to the NDIS operational guidelines, a document that sets out the conditions qualifying people for access to the scheme.
The document, published on the NDIS website, was changed to remove direct eligibility for all but the most severe cases of autism.
“Level two” autism – which is severe enough to require substantial support – was deleted from a list of conditions likely to meet the NDIS requirements.
Only “level three” autism – those requiring very substantial support – was left on the list.
Autism advocates urgently raised the matter with the national disability insurance agency and the shadow social services minister, Jenny Macklin.
On Friday, the NDIA told Guardian Australia the changes had been made in error. The NDIA said it had urgently called autism groups to reassure them and had reverted to the old eligibility criteria.
But reports on Saturday suggest the NDIA intends to follow through with the changes in an attempt to cut costs. The Australian reported that NDIA officials have been working for months on a strategy to pare back the number of people with autism accessing the scheme.
Bob Buckley, the convenor for Autism Aspergers Advocacy Australia, said the published changes provoked more than just uncertainty and confusion.
“It was outrage,” he said. “It was outrage that they were excluding level two. Because level two, that’s a clinician saying ‘these people need substantial support’, and they’re saying that doesn’t qualify for the NDIS.”
On Friday, the NDIA told Guardian Australia it had apologised for any confusion caused by the mistake. It assured the public that no changes had been made to the NDIS access requirements for level two autism.
“Earlier this week an incorrect document was uploaded to the NDIS website,” a spokesman said. “We rectified this error as soon as we became aware of it.”
“The NDIA proactively called autism stakeholders, including A4, to alert them to the error.”
Asked whether the accidentally-published changes were part of a planned cost-cutting exercise, the social services minister, Dan Tehan, would only say: “The NDIA has not made any changes to the NDIS access requirements for autism severity level 2 as detailed on List A.
“Any person with autism eligible for the NDIS will receive the reasonable and necessary supports they need.”
The changes threatened to deny access to early intervention services.
Intensive early intervention is considered a crucial pillar of the NDIS, particularly for children living with autism. Research has shown intensive support from a young age can have positive outcomes for children with autism.
More than half of those accessing NDIS-funded early intervention supports had autism.
The NDIA has faced persistent criticism for the implementation of the landmark scheme. In its defence, the NDIA has said the scheme is world-leading, complex, and in its early stages. It has made a suite of changes to address the concerns.
The changes continued on Friday, when the NDIA announced it was restructuring to improve the agency’s performance. In an email sent to stakeholders, the NDIA said its intention was to revisit “the organisational operating principles that drive how the agency functions”.
“We are committed to delivering a consistent and quality experience for participants, no matter where they live,” the NDIA said.
“This project will see the agency move to functions-based operating principles and design, to help us operate as one NDIA.”
The restructure will see human resources and finance areas report into national teams, rather than the NDIA’s planning areas. The agency will also create a national planning function with state and territory-focussed managers.
“Our agency needs to have the right skills in the right places to meet the challenge of transition and to support our primary role – bringing participants into the scheme through a consistent experience, and building quality plans.”