Disability clients treated ‘worse than animals’

3 minute read

Predatory NDIS providers are rorting the scheme while mistreating people in their care, a damning report has found.

Neglect and abuse of vulnerable Australians is rife in the Victorian supported residential service system, opening opportunities for what NDIS Minister Bill Shorten calls “bottom-dwelling unethical providers”.

According to an interim report from Melbourne’s Mental Health Legal Centre, some NDIS providers bribe participants with junk food or cigarettes before overcharging for disability support services. Clients can be kept in locked facilities without access to their finances.

“[T]hey bribe these people to cut off all ties with anyone else in the community,” Mr Shorten said.

“They then put them in unsafe conditions – poor food, poor privacy, poor safety, poor care – and then they systematically loot these people’s accounts.”

Some supported residential services reportedly work in cahoots with a “preferred GP” who attends the premises and bulk bills for multiple residents without effective clinical governance.

Other predatory business practices identified in the report include hiring family members to deliver NDIS-funded services while making it appear that they are separate entities, writing illegitimate or vaguely worded invoices to access aged care packages and double-dipping by owning accommodation facilities as well as the support provider that services it.

Another common practice was only offering NDIS-funded supports on the weekend, so the provider can bill a higher hourly rate.

One example included in the report was a support worker watching TV with a client for six hours on a Sunday and charging for the time as “counselling”.

It’s estimated that around 4000 people live in Victoria’s 115 supported residential services, or boarding houses, and around 1600 of those are NDIS participants.

On average, their packages are worth between $103,000 and $196,000 each year.

The report itself was commissioned by the federal government in 2019, triggered by reports from industry whisteblowers.

Mental Health Legal Centre CEO Charlotte Jones said compiling the report had been shocking and that she had struggled to accept there were businesses that “saw people as human cargo for money”.

Promises of cash, cigarettes and junk food are reportedly used as bargaining chips to lure vulnerable people into changing accommodation or support providers.

“[People] don’t understand the size and scale of their NDIS package,” Ms Jones said.

“A lot of that information is withheld from them and a lot of them then don’t understand why it’s wrong if they go somewhere else and live somewhere else if it has a nice big flat screen TV and somebody is prepared to give them cigarettes or alcohol.”

Findings on the physical condition of the boarding houses included rooms divided by a hanging sheet, limited maintenance, overcrowding and a lack of access to clean clothes.

Some NDIS participants also reported having had their bank cards taken away by the accommodation provider and the doors and windows being locked at night.

“There are at least 14 regulators in some way responsible for some level of oversight or jurisdiction related to the needs and accommodation of people living with a disability, yet people are housed in ways that not only breach their rights and neglect their needs but would not be acceptable if they were an animal,” the report said.

It concludes that despite, or perhaps in part because of, the multiple regulatory authorities with jurisdiction over supported residential services, there is no clear accountability.

This year’s federal budget offered additional funding of $48.3 million for the NDIA’s fraud taskforce, as well as money for 200 more personnel.

There was also a further $142.6 million for the NDIS quality and safeguards commission.

A joint “mini taskforce” will be established between the two organisations.

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