Customers wait years for crucial equipment as vendors battle ‘bureaucratic’ NDIS

People with disabilities have waited so long for life-changing amenities that they’ve become obsolete by the time they arrive.

There have even been instances where clients have died while waiting for assistive technology (AT), as service providers struggle to navigate the “complex” and “bureaucratic” national disability insurance scheme.

The NDIS supports disabled Australians under the age of 65 by providing funds for essential equipment, which can cost upwards of $50,000, the same as a mid-range car.

When equipment is no longer effective by the time it arrives, the NDIS pays for its replacement, creating a huge financial burden on the taxpayer.

While many customers praise the flexibility of the NDIS, the massive delays in the delivery of ATs, which impact their quality of life, are of growing concern.

Old by the time it arrives

Libby Callaway, an occupational therapist and board member of the advocacy organization Australian Rehabilitation and Assistive Technology Association (ARATA), said the delays could make the equipment obsolete by the time it arrives.

Libby Callaway says a slow approval process contributes to delays.(Provided)

“One of the reasons people get the wrong AT is the slow approval processes for assistive technology from government funding agencies,” Callaway explained.

“The other issue is that people’s needs can change; some people live in progressive conditions where their needs change rapidly,” she said.

“Children grow especially fast; you can make a decision on assistive technology and then wait for that approval and [they] grow 10 centimeters.”

Lauren Hart, director of occupational therapy company Optimal Living, said her clients often wait 12 months to receive their essential AT.

“We are writing an application urgently and submitting and pursuing it because someone desperately needs a piece of TA for quality of life…and we literally have no control to influence the speed of the outcome” , she explained.

Taxpayers foot the bill

TA is expensive and long delays can mean that the equipment ends up costing double or triple.

This happened to me when ordering a head pillow to go in my shower bed, the first one I ordered ended up in France by accident.

The second arrived but it was the wrong product and the third one was the right size and shape but it was not waterproof.

After three separate purchases and over two years of waiting, I still haven’t received the correct item and the NDIS has spent over $800.

It’s just the cost of standard products, which has nothing on the price of a new wheelchair, with simple power chairs costing around $25,000.

My custom electric wheelchair costs $47,000 for the base and with the modifications that make it suitable for me, it will easily top $56,000.

A close-up photo of Eleanor Beidatsch wearing a white top.
Eleanor Beidatsch’s wheelchair is three years older than the recommended replacement age.

If the equipment is no longer effective by the time it arrives, the NDIS replaces it, which means the taxpayer ends up paying twice.

I have been waiting for my new wheelchair for two years and my current wheelchair is eight years old, three years older than the recommended replacement age.

The chair no longer has all its functions such as tilting the backrest for more comfort.

It’s been a painful two years and I fear every day that continued wear and tear will cause another failure, like the engine stalling while crossing a road.

‘A waste of time and money’

Ms Hart said the process of writing AT requests was so long under the NDIS that therapists had no time to manage their clients’ needs.

“It’s such an administrative and bureaucratic system that we as therapists can’t spend the time we’d like to spend or spend people’s funding doing therapy,” she said.

“We have to spend so much time filling out applications and writing long reports that discuss funding criteria and looking for applications that haven’t been answered for nine months and so on and on and on.”

A studio portrait of Lauren Hart photographed in front of a white brick wall
Occupational therapist Lauren Hart says the application process is shrouded in paperwork.(Provided)

She said the long applications were the result of the NDIS system, which began rolling out nationwide in 2013.

Before the NDIS, it was easier to get essential ATs, but there were fewer options available due to price limits.

“Quite often we jump through all the hoops we’re supposed to go through, and then we get a response that clearly indicates they haven’t read what we’ve written or haven’t read a substantial portion of it,” Ms. Hart said. .

“It’s really frustrating because you put so much energy and effort into doing what you’re supposed to do; [it’s] a waste of time and money for the participants.”

The NDIS is run by the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), with a spokesperson ensuring that all replacement costs have been covered by the agency.

“In certain circumstances, timely access to the right AT may be more appropriately obtained through equipment rental.”

Hiring is an alternative to buying AT and can be cheaper and quicker to happen.

A basic electric wheelchair costs $4,000 to rent instead of $25,000 upfront.

The shortcomings of equipment rental

But specialty items can’t be rented, and vendors can’t always afford to rent instead of selling an item.

Many pieces of equipment cannot be rented, even on a short-term basis, because they are designed for specific needs.

Cary Nathan sits in a wheelchair surrounded by mobility equipment
Cary Nathan says the NDIS seems to push for equipment rental rather than outright purchase.(Provided)

Some AT vendors believe that the NDIS supports equipment rental rather than outright purchase.

Cary Nathan, director of assistive technology provider AC Mobility in Perth, said this could cause problems in the hiring industry.

“The impression I have is that [the NDIS is] moving more towards renting equipment where they can, especially for pediatric equipment where it can only be used for a relatively short period of time,” Nathan said.

“If they’re going to push hiring, the rates … have to be higher for providers like us to invest a lot of money,” he said.

But the NDIA spokesman disagreed with Mr Nathan, saying the agency did not prefer renting to buying and that the priority was always to ensure participants received the supports. related to the disability they needed.

Rural areas, a wasteland for services for people with disabilities

Julia Salmon, occupational therapist at Optimal Living’s regional office in Albany, said providers need enough customers in an area to make rural deliveries worthwhile.

“A lot of suppliers from Perth are going to come here now, but they need four or five customers lined up,” she said.

Julia Salmon photographed on a white background
Julia Salmon says it can be difficult to get equipment to people in rural areas. (Provided)

NDIS will not pay for deliveries unless equipment is purchased, making it difficult for vendors to rent in regional areas.

Renting gear is not an option for me, both because I have special needs and live in a rural part of Western Australia.

The shortage of therapists compounds the problem

Around 18% of Australians have a disability and with around 13% of them under the age of 65, the NDIS has plenty of customers to support.

The flexibility of the regime has caused an explosion in the demand for goods and services without an increase in the number of qualified professionals who can meet this need.

There is a shortage of skilled disabled workers in metropolitan areas like Perth and this problem is multiplied by 10 in regional areas like Albany.

This is partly due to the time it takes to complete a paramedic degree in college and when future occupational therapists graduate, they are limited by the companies that will train them.

Ms Hart said the NDIS had changed the financial situation of providers and made it difficult to provide on-the-job training to new graduates.

“We’ve had a massive boom in demand for services, but we haven’t had a big enough boom in paramedic graduates to keep up with and meet that demand,” she said.

“The other issue in this scenario is the lack of companies offering the training and support new graduates need to operate in this complex environment.”

A woman in a wheelchair sitting by a window using a smartphone.
There are not enough therapists to keep up with the number of applications needed for assistive technology. (Shutterstock: Nana_studio)

With a low number of trained professionals and lengthy inquiries for each purchase, it’s no surprise that occupational therapists struggle to keep up with each client’s workload.

A Department of Social Services (DSS) spokesperson said the government had invested $250 million to develop the disabled workforce.

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