An inquiry into the Disability Support Pension (DSP) continues to receive submissions from advocacy groups and individuals about how the system is failing people with disability or chronic illness.
The Senate Committee of Community Affairs References held a hearing today to gather further evidence of how people with disability are being impacted by the pension system and more recommendations from advocacy groups about what needs to change.
The inquiry process began in May this year and several public hearings have already been held - a report from the Committee is expected by 30 November.
The DSP accounts for 12 percent of social security spending, or around $18.5 billion a year, and supports more than 750,000 people, but today the Committee has been hearing the experiences of people who are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to accessing the DSP.
According to the First Peoples Disability Network (FPDN) submission, Indigenous Australians are three times more likely to receive the DSP than non-Indigenous Australians due to higher rates of disability, unemployment, and socio-economic disadvantage.
The submission notes that the latest Department of Social Services figures show more than 53,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people receive the DSP.
However, FPDN says there are barriers for many more First Nations people who would be eligible for the DSP but can’t access it.
They say it is “physically close to impossible to actually lodge a claim” in remote areas of Australia because there are not enough professionals who can make the required disability assessments and there is “little to no community engagement to promote the DSP” in regional and remote areas.
The Committee has also heard from deaf Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who needed interpreters to access Centrelink, and ultimately the DSP, but were not given appropriate support throughout the process.
This included interpreters not being provided at all and services treating them in a culturally inappropriate way.
Eligibility terms criticised
To be eligible for the DSP, a person must have an impairment which is fully diagnosed, treated and stabilised, among several other requirements and income tests.
According to advocacy groups, these requirements are often the reason for people with disability being put onto JobSeeker payments instead of the DSP.
The Salvation Army is calling for an overhaul of the system surrounding the DSP, as well as the application process, to ensure people who can work part time are supported to keep their job and the financial security which the DSP provides.
Another of the organisation’s recommendations is to set up a different payment which is recovery-oriented so that people with conditions such as mental ill health can be supported to improve their wellbeing.
Under the current DSP, criteria anyone undergoing treatment or with a condition which fluctuates is not eligible, immediately forcing anyone with a changing condition who can’t work to live on JobSeeker payments.
In a recent case brought to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, a man with esophageal cancer - a cancer of the tube connecting the throat to the stomach - was initially denied the DSP because his medical report referenced “seeking nutritional guidance”, says Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University, Dr Darren O'Donovan.
Dr O'Donovan says decisions made about whether someone is eligible for DSP often involve a “chain of speculation” by decision makers who read into doctors reports and assume that a person is not fully treated or doesn’t have a stabilised condition.
“At the moment too many people are applying and they're falling into the spaces between the words on a doctor’s notes,” he explains.
If a person is not eligible for DSP, is applying for the DSP, or has been rejected and is reapplying, they receive the JobSeeker payment.
Dr Dina Bowman, appearing at the hearing on behalf of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, says 36 percent of people on JobSeeker have a partial capacity to work, meaning they have a form of disability but have not qualified for the DSP.
“They have to rely on a much lower rate of payment, the JobSeeker payment, which impoverishes them,” she says.
JobSeeker can be almost $340 less than what DSP recipients are paid a fortnight and Dr Bowman says the gap is likely to increase over time.
In addition to living on less money, JobSeeker recipients must meet mutual obligations, such as applying for a set number of jobs or attending appointments.
Dr Bowman says these obligations may not be achievable for people with disability, particularly if they are physically or mentally unwell.
“The problem with mutual obligations is if they are not well, or have a disability and can’t make an appointment because they’re just just not well enough, they worry that then they’ll have their payment stripped,” says Dr Bowman.
“Only 17 percent of people with partial capacity to work are exempt from job application requirements.
“For those who are exempt, it’s a concern as well because people may have a rolling exemption but then they’re stuck on JobSeeker for long periods and the payment is too low.
“It impacts their wellbeing; I’ve spoken to people who can’t have their prescription glasses repaired [because of the cost] and then can't drive because they can’t see.”
A spokesperson from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment appeared before the Senate Committee saying almost half of people with disability on JobSeeker are classified as being “in the warning zone”, which means their payments are on hold because they have failed to meet a mutual obligation.
But the spokesperson says this figure is similar to the number of people without disability on JobSeeker who have their payments on hold.
“[JobSeeker service] providers are required to take into account the health and mental condition of the individual,” they say.
“They have considerable discretion to vary mutual obligation requirements.”
The Department took a number of Committee questions on notice, which need to be answered before the end of October, particularly around data which will clarify whether DSP criteria are forcing people onto JobSeeker.