Australia: NDIS: A conversation with John Walsh AM, Partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers

John Walsh is many things: an actuary and partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a staunch proponent of social and health policy, a husband, a father and a champion for change in Australia's disability landscape. His passion to improve outcomes for people with disabilities is informed by his own experiences, as he suffered quadriplegia after an accident during a rugby league game in his early-twenties.

John helped shape the National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013 (NDIS), which received assent on 28 March 2013, with his work on the Productivity Commission to review the disability support system.

He is now a Board Member of DisabilityCare Australia, which is active in areas of South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales. From 1 July 2014, DisabilityCare Australia will begin its work in regions of the Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory and Western Australia. A gradual roll out of the full scheme will begin from July 2016 in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.

Q: What difference do you think the NDIS is going to make to people's lives?

John: The whole point of the NDIS is to give people who have a significant disability choices and control over their lives. The Productivity Commission found that the disability system at the time was "...underfunded, unfair, fragmented and inefficient...and gave people little choice and control." The NDIS will put people with a disability in the driver's seat and encourage them to have a chance to realise their potential. Eligible people will effectively enter into a contract with DisabilityCare Australia, the agency that's running the NDIS, and it will document the support they need to achieve their plans and goals, and put together a funding package.

Q: The Productivity Commission showed that through better early intervention and increased productivity, the NDIS would be good for the economy as well as for individuals. It seems obvious in hindsight, but was getting the NDIS over the line easy?

John: In the end it was remarkably easy. It's one of those things that seemed easy when it happened, but really took 50 years to get there. The thinking behind the NDIS model started in the 1960s and slowly filtered its way into Australian systems through a range of interim reports about workers' compensation and motor injury systems. I first got involved in this area in the 1980s when I wanted to improve the quality of information and statistics about disability.

The NDIS was supported so strongly because of the convergence of a few main factors. The disability system had become so broken, and was so obviously unfair for people, that to not do anything would have eventually cost far more than the NDIS will, and with poor outcomes. There was also a coalition of support that emerged through the Every Australian Counts campaign, which reflected a massive groundswell of public support. There's now more than 156,000 supporters on its website. Essentially, the economics made sense, the outcomes for people with a disability made sense and the public goodwill made sense. So, really, the politicians had no choice but to agree.

Q: You work with numbers every day as an actuary. How hard was it to gather the right statistics for your analysis?

John: Well, I'm not sure we did gather the right statistics, because they don't exist yet. One of the challenges for DisabilityCare Australia will be to establish an IT system and database that gathers the right statistics. The Productivity Commission had access to the ABS's 2009 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, and our analysis was limited by the sample size of that survey. What we want to set up is a model that captures incidence and prevalence of disability, and what it takes to help people with a disability get good outcomes for themselves.

Q: The NDIS received assent on 28 March 2013 and DisabilityCare Australia commenced providing support in some states and regions in July 2013. How did you feel when these landmarks were reached?

John: I was daunted that it was actually happening! Delighted that these landmarks were reached and proud that I was able to make some contribution to it, but a bit apprehensive at the massive amount of work to do.

Q: What do you think the impact of the NDIS will be on the insurance industry in Australia?

John: The part of the industry that's been most concerned is providers of life insurance and income protection policies. The NDIS wasn't designed to replace disability income insurance or lump sum payments for death or disablement. The insurance industry is communicating this to its policy holders, and I think that's important information for them.

In terms of the general insurance industry, the only impact the NDIS will have is the removal of the future care head of damage from lump sum injury compensation. Future care for people who sustain the most severe injuries will now be covered by the state-based injury "sister scheme" of the NDIS, the National Injury Insurance Scheme, when it eventually emerges.

Q: What do you hope the NDIS will achieve for Australia and Australians?

John: We talk about Australia as a multicultural society, so I hope NDIS will make it a multi-ability society. Everyone should be valued according to their potential and ability and, at the moment, that's not happening. I was very impressed when Minister Shorten became involved and said "reforming disabilities services and giving two million fellow Australians a proper fair go really is the last frontier in human rights and social policy reform in our great country."

Q: What's the next big thing you'd like to tackle?

John: I'm retiring on 30 September 2013 as a partner at PwC. However, I'm on the Board of DisabilityCare Australia so I will continue to stay involved in the NDIS's development.

I've also been doing some work with Sarah Johnson, a PwC colleague, on a whole of government approach to how to best support people and families who have multiple areas of disadvantage. We know that if someone has a disability they're more likely to have a higher rate of poverty, chronic disease, mental illness, homelessness or interaction with the justice system. Similarly, people who are homeless are more likely to have a disability and people who are in jail are more likely to have an intellectual disability, brain injury or mental illness, and so on. At the moment, these people have to deal with different departments and programs for different issues. I'm sure there must be a better way to support them.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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