HomeCoronavirusCoalition shift on rapid antigen tests for disability carers still falls short,...

Coalition shift on rapid antigen tests for disability carers still falls short, advocates say

National disability insurance scheme participants will be able to dip into their core funding to purchase rapid antigen tests for themselves and their support workers, but critics have warned the change is still inadequate.

The policy shift, confirmed by the Morrison government on Monday, is aimed at addressing an inequity in the system that meant some NDIS participants who lived in their own home, rather than in a group home, were being forced to spend hundreds of dollars on rapid antigen tests for their support workers, as revealed by Guardian Australia last week.

In one particularly shocking case, Carolyn Campbell-McLean, who has muscular dystrophy, and as a result limited lung capacity, had spent $1,300 on tests for her carers, just so they could continue to enter her home and help her with tasks like getting out of bed, showering and dressing herself.

However, the new policy still falls short of demands from disability advocacy groups, who say the tests should be free, and was criticised by the federal Labor opposition on Monday. The new scheme means NDIS participants will use their existing “core” budget funding funds to buy the tests. This pool of money is allocated for use on core services, such as support workers, transport and other everyday items related to a person’s disability.

The government said NDIS participants would be able to use these existing core funds to buy tests for themselves or their carers.

About 18% of all NDIS participants, including Campbell-McLean, are not eligible for the 10 free tests over three months that are being provided to concession card holders, a measure that came into force on Monday.

Disability advocate Max Burt says the question now is whether the government will be increasing funding packages to cover the extra costs.

The NDIS minister, Linda Reynolds, said the change to allow participants to buy RATs with their funding was “another example of how we are supporting participants to use their funding flexibly during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

“We know that rapid antigen tests are an important tool for ensuring that participants continue to access their disability-related supports,” she said. “NDIS participants can claim rapid antigen tests to ensure their continuity of services.”

Campbell-McLean welcomed the change as a “fantastic outcome”, though the Physical Disability Council of NSW, which also raised the issue last week, noted a need to increase plan budgets “when funds are used prematurely to cover this substantial additional cost”.

An NDIS spokesperson said participants can “use their existing funds flexibly to purchase rapid antigen tests”. “Plans will not be automatically adjusted – if a participant thinks their plan funds are too low to claim the RAT support, they can contact the NDIA by phone [on]1800 800 110,” the spokesperson said.

Max Burt is an advocate who is immunocompromised and has multiple disabilities following a head injury sustained in car crash in London 22 years ago. He now requires daily care and told Guardian Australia he had spent about $1,000 on rapid antigen tests for his team of several support workers.

Burt said allowing NDIS participants to use their allocated funds to purchase RATs prompted the question of whether the government would be increasing funding packages to cover the extra costs.

“And priority is an issue,” he said. “If the government is not prioritising concession card holders access to RATs via their pharmacist, and is now prioritising teachers and school children with free and available RATs directly supplied to schools, then where does that leave NDIS participants? In the queue with the general public?

“Buying them via normal retail channels – left behind at the back of the queue again?”

Burt said the free tests for concession card holders, which he was able to access, were insufficient and also not particularly helpful, due to the limited supply. “If you’re in my position as well, in a wheelchair, [going out] to shop at a chemist is just not that easy,” he said.

Labor’s NDIS spokesman, Bill Shorten, said rapid antigen tests should be free for all NDIS participants.

“It is not the job of NDIS participants to do the Morrison government’s job of continuing services. Providers and carers should be able to access rapid tests easily and at no cost.”

Unlike the aged care sector, NDIS providers do not have access to the federal government’s national stockpile of rapid tests, meaning they have been forced to compete with other businesses to source them in the free market.

One provider told Guardian Australia this month it had only been able to source seven rapid antigen tests for its entire workforce in Tasmania.

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