Hard hearts and false economy: Disability Support Pension under attack

(Full disclosure: I am a recipient of the Disability Support Pension.)

I guess the government thought it was time that disabled people came in for a bit of special attention. After all, it’s already targeted low income earners, benefit recipients, orphan children of veterans and aged pensioners; why not add yet another disadvantaged group into the mix?

Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews has flagged possible changes to the Disability Support Pension, changes that could begin as soon as the May Budget is delivered. You see, he considers this benefit ‘troublesome’ – not because it indicates that thousands of Australians are in need of income support, special services and excellent health care, but simply because it costs the government a great deal of money. Obviously, therefore, the appropriate action to take is to find a way to boot as many people off the pension as possible.

Andrews wants to start with periodic re-assessment by ‘independent’ doctors. For ‘independent’, read: government-approved. That might only apply to those who have received the pension for under five years, he said, but that ‘might’ is nicely vague, isn’t it? No guarantees here. Never mind that in order to be granted the pension at all, you not only have to provide detailed medical reports from your own doctors, but also be assessed by Centrelink’s. If – and only if – Centrelink is satisfied that your medical condition is severe enough to make it impossible to work for a minimum of 15 hours per work at minimum wage for at least the next two years, and you pass an income and assets test, then you qualify for the pension.

The Centrelink medical interview is harrowing. You are expected to be ready to explain every part of every doctor’s report you have provided, regardless of your own medical knowledge. If what you say conflicts with what’s on the report, you’re grilled as to why. I won’t go so far as to say the interviewer assumes you are not ‘really’ disabled, but that’s certainly the atmosphere. That’s hard enough to take if you suffer from a physical disability – imagine being in chronic pain, possibly taking strong painkillers, in that setting. Now imagine how difficult it can be for those who have long-term mental health problems. Anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia – the list goes on. A stressful interview can be devastating.

And Andrews proposes doing this on a regular basis – possibly as often as every three months. Because, you see, those on the pension receive so much money that it ‘provides a “perverse” incentive to qualify as disabled rather than unemployed’.

Yes, you read that right.

Then there’s Andrews’ other brainwave. Some pensioners – assuming they still qualify under the new re-assessment regime – would be deemed more disabled than others. Those who are ‘less disabled’ would receive less money – and the Disability Support Pension falls well below the minimum wage already. So who decides who qualifies? Centrelink, of course, presumably on the advice of their doctors. And what constitutes ‘more disabled’? What criteria would they have to fulfill? Blindness? Paraplegia? Severe intellectual impairment? Would it be enough to be suffering such crippling anxiety that they couldn’t leave the house? Is chronic pain ‘less’ disabling than depression? Just how disabled is disabled enough?

It’s utterly ludicrous. There’s simply no basis for comparison here. Apples and oranges. Forget comparing mental and physical health problems – just trying to figure out which physical disabilities fell into which category would be a nightmare. It places an incredible burden on not only the people seeking the pension, but also the Centrelink workers and doctors who would have to do the re-assessments, make the decisions and maintain a system already tangled in bureaucratic red tape.

Of course, Andrews says this is all about ‘investment’, and not about forcing people off the pension at all. Odd, then, that he should stress how troublesome he finds its $15 billion annual expenditure. Curious, too, that he should be trying to put into place a two-tiered system that would serve no purpose but to penalise some people for failing to fulfill an entirely arbitrary set of criteria. If it’s not about the money, why is the money so important to him?

The answer is simple. It is all about the money. It’s about a government more preoccupied with achieving a surplus Budget than it is with caring for its most vulnerable citizens. It’s about a Coalition wedded to a political theory that says governments should be as small as possible, regardless of the cost in human terms. And it’s about a Minister who, apparently, has no problem with the idea that his decisions might see thousands forced to try and make do with significantly less – or even nothing at all.

It’s about hard hearts, and false economy. Every dollar ‘saved’ will be a life adversely, possibly dangerously, affected. Increased stress could lead to deteriorating mental health, or even suicide attempts. Less money will lead to more and more dependence on charitable organisations, and they are already warning that they will be unable to cope with current demand. People will be forced to make decisions between medications and medical equipment, food, rent, and utilities. They may end up homeless, mired in debt, or with even more health problems due to poor diet and an inability to avoid therapy. When that happens, the government will find itself footing the bill for the damage it has caused, as people seek help from the public health and housing systems.

Unless, of course, the government decides to do the unthinkable – make people pay for Medicare, bring in restrictive eligibility criteria for public housing, or even sell off part or all of both. Unthinkable, right?

Perish the thought.

22 Responses to Hard hearts and false economy: Disability Support Pension under attack

  1. Gized says:

    This is the new dictator! What a sham Australia has become. I listened to Q&A last night and some fabulous stuff came out of that. The prime minister DID,HAS BROKEN HIS PROMISE TO AUSTRALIANS. A lot of people voted for him based on the promise he gave that he would not change certain things. Ha, Ha, what a jok he has become. Every time I look at him, I feel sick to my stomach. Why? because I don’t take well to liars. yes, he is a liar and a good one at that.

    In the end the liar will always get caught out. He may have his fun now, up until we again vote, but he will be out the doors quick smart.

    Fancy saying we will pay for visits to the Dr. Fancy saying DSP under 53 and others to be re-assessed. Fancy saying higher taxes and the rest. Tony, grow up!!!!!

  2. James says:

    I used to thank God we weren’t America when it came to health care as I would not have survived but Now Australia we are well on our way. Face facts guys nobody cares anymore, it is all about the individual now and not the community. There are no rally’s no outrage and no chance of change.

  3. Debbie says:

    What we need to do is rally at then steps of parliament in victoria. Let’s organise a rally to stop this and show what we feel.

  4. JenniferGJ says:

    Dear Conscience Vote. I am looking forward to seeing a piece written by you on the need for a Fighter Plane Levy. We have had a Medicare levy for a long while, so why not call on them to honestly name the next levy?

    • JenniferGJ says:

      I quote from Bloomberg – “There has been some escalation in costs but nothing as dramatic as we sometimes see” in developing military hardware, Abbott told reporters. “We are confident that all of the logistical issues are well on the way to being ironed out.” And I wonder who is going to keep a close eye on this expenditure? The treasurer of Australia?

  5. […] back onto the lower-paying Newstart (For a comprehensive essay on this subject, I highly recommend The Conscience Vote). This, to me, sounds a lot like discrimination.There is, of course, another way of looking at […]

  6. Debbie says:

    What a disgrace this Government has become.

    Tony Abbott, you should be ashamed of yourself.

    You need to get real and get your head out of your smugglers.


  7. Don Matthews. says:

    Lobby all your friends to not vote Liberal next time.Credlin’s Cretins are all A’dolts so nothing will change if we give them time.

    • lilacsigil says:

      “Cretins” is an old term for an intellectually disabled person. We’re looking at a deeply cynical ploy here, not foolishness. And while this is certainly evil, Labor made some pretty nasty cuts to welfare services and incomes, too. It’s not like they’re a great option.

    • megpie71 says:

      The next Federal election (barring Tony Abbott actually going to the barricades for the notion of taking down the carbon tax and the mining tax) isn’t scheduled to happen until about 2016 at the earliest. We still have another two years until then, during which time the outcries of the Australian people are readily ignorable. I’d rather not find out what Mr Abbott and his friends have planned for us in the meantime.

      Incidentally, it’s worth noting the changes they’re noising about here most likely aren’t going to require new legislation. I seem to recall from back when I was working for Centrelink there was a provision in the DSP rules for an independent physician’s report to be requested at the discretion of Centrelink staff (should they feel there might be a case of fraudulent claims involved). So all they’d need to do is alter the rules so the “discretion” requirement is removed. So why are they being talked about now? Well, I suspect Tony and his pals want to find out whether there will be a massive public backlash against the notion, so they’re running the idea up the flagpole to see who salutes it.

  8. megpie71 says:

    I think we really need to start demanding governments make some acknowledgement of there being TWO parties in any decision about whether or not someone is going to get a job. On the one hand, there’s the job seeker. On the other hand, there’s the employer. There is absolutely NO sense in demanding people look for work, and insisting it’s their responsibility to find a job when it’s blatantly clear employers aren’t going to have a bar of them. I mean, yes, it is theoretically possible I’d be able to find steady work despite my chronic depression. It’s theoretically possible for a blue whale to survive outside the water, too. More realistically, the minute I start requesting accommodations like days with minimal customer contact, or days off, because I’m dealing with a nasty patch where my brain is hating on me and I’ll be less productive than normal if I’m expected to perform my normal range of duties, I’m going to find myself out of a job faster than I can blink.

    I can understand the employer’s point of view here – what they want and need for their business are employees who are consistently available to perform consistent levels of work, and who don’t require changes or accommodations to be made. Employing people with long-term physical or mental illnesses is not exactly amenable to this goal, so they’re less likely to do it without incentives and assistance to do so.

    For the government agencies, meanwhile, to be pushing people who aren’t considered to be “employable” to search for work, hounding them to get jobs and essentially accusing them of slacking (or not wanting to work) when they don’t achieve this goal, doesn’t help anyone at all. What needs to happen in order for a lot of the unemployed disabled to be considered employable is actually a lot of government assistance for the employers. There need to be incentives for creating things like stable part-time positions for people with lower energy levels, for making the accommodations necessary for people with physical problems (be they vision, mobility, whatever), for finding the niches where these irregular people can fit. Hounding job seekers (the people with the least power in the whole equation) to find these niches on little money and less resources is possibly the least efficient method of achieving this goal.

    But then, this government doesn’t really care about getting people into work, no matter how much they mouth pious phrases about “employability”. They don’t care about job creation, and they certainly aren’t going to make any efforts towards it. They WANT the unemployment rate to go up, because they can use a high unemployment rate as ammunition in their battle against “high” wages and the EEEVOL UNIONS!!!1!! So basically, the more people they can push off the pensions (DSP, age pension, etc) and onto the dole, the more people they can brand as “lazy” and “slackers”, and the more people they can have desperate for work – any work – because it’ll at least mean they don’t have to deal with Centrelink’s incessant demands, the harder they can push for actual wage cuts.

    Let’s not forget, Gina Reinhart was offering us two dollars a day for working her mines up north. I suspect she was being generous.

    • lilacsigil says:

      I agree! Even people with stable physical disabilities have a terrible time finding work – which rather points to it not being primarily the disabled person who is the problem!

  9. lilacsigil says:

    I was refused the disability pension on the criteria of “you’ll get better in the next two years” (I had cancer). It took 6 years to be able to get back to part time work, but at no time was I eligible because I would always be better within two years. (I also had and still have depression and psoriatic arthritis, but they didn’t count, apparently).

    All of these changes have just happened in the UK, leading to massive cost blow-outs (for the Minister’s interest), suicides, increased pressure on the health system and both professional and family carers, and homelessness. You’d think he’d be able to look at that mess and decide not to go ahead, but apparently not!

    • roblpittman says:

      I gather you are from Australia. Starting to rid ourselves of a deficit by attacking the most vulnerable is disgusting and unnecessary.

      We have large corporations selling goods in Australia and paying very small amounts of tax because they use all types of false paperwork and the use of tax havens to do so. This is one area Government should be looking at.

      We are talking large amounts of money which I believe should be taxed by a tax on movement of money through banks. Of course it is the people with masses of money movements of money through banks who would need to pay more so this conservative government will never attack them.

      They would rather start by attacking the vulnerable, people with disabilities, older Australians who are dependent on pensions and the genuinely unemployed.

      This Government is attempting to convince all Australians there is a budget emergency but there is not but many are convinced there is because the Government says there is. That is like saying I have a deficit because I have a home loan.

      Six months ago Australia had a Triple A rating for the economy granted by all three World Rating Agencies. In other words our economy was seen to be in great shape by the three independent umpires and our new Government is doing its’ best to show the complete opposite.

    • jane says:

      Absolutely disgusting! How were you supposed to survive in the two years to your miracle recovery?

      Andrews is “troubled” by the $15bn it costs for DSP, but he & the Liars are blythely ignoring billions in unpaid tax by their wealthy mates.

      Not “troubled” about that, I notice, Mr Andrews. And not “troubled” by the fact that squeezing the rorted billions out of people who are more than able to pay it would probably go a long way to covering the cost of helping those suffering often crippling and life threatening disabilities!

      • lilacsigil says:

        I survived on Newstart, with an exemption from having to apply for jobs: fortunately(?) I had no dependents, and was so sick that I spent all day every day in bed, eating very little and using few utilities, with few other expenses. It would be much harder now with much higher out-of-pocket expenses for scans, tests and doctors’ appointments (I have ongoing health issues, as you might expect.)

  10. JenniferGJ says:

    I find this shocking. Unfortunately the people I know who would care are not in government. So, what else could be done? Would it be useful to contact or lobby those MPs in the government who are known to have a conscience or to be working in their own communities speaking up for the disadvantaged? Do petitions work? What organisations speak up for the disabled? Never give up and always speak up, because whatever is affecting you is also bound to be affecting many, many other people too.

    • If the proposed changes require legislation, then it’s definitely worth contacting the Greens and cross-bench Senators.

      If, however, this is simply a matter of changing regulations, then the Minister can do whatever he likes.

  11. roblpittman says:

    For the last year I have been trying to help an ex workmate. I work supporting people with severe disabilities in an accommodation setting. So did he for several years. He started to have eyesight problems so arranged to go to a specialist. The specialist asked him if he had driven to the appointment and when he said yes the specialist said, “Well you aren’t driving home, you are legally blind”.

    He was refused a Disability Pension and put on Newstart by Centrelink and was made to seek jobs. He got a referral from his doctor so they left him on Newstart but with no obligation to seek jobs. He understandably got depressed and ended up under a Psychiatrist who diagnosed him as Clinically Depressed. Centrelink still would only put him on Newstart as Legally Blind was only enough for 10 points out of 20 and Clinical Depression was only “temporary” in their eyes.

    This man is single, has a mortgage he can’t afford, has no savings left, has been forced to put his house on the market and is still on Newstart, is still of course legally blind and clinically depressed so how the XXXX do you get a Disability Pension?

    • Andrews’ characterisation of depression as an ‘episodic’ illness shows an astonishing lack of knowledge. Sure, some people suffer episodes of acute depression, but chronic depression is a long-term, debilitating illness.

      Kudos to you for trying to help your mate; I’m sure your support means the world to him. Unfortunately, the only thing I could suggest is that he gets new eye tests, and seeks a second opinion.

      • roblpittman says:

        Oh he is trying and has appealed a couple of times. He also is getting help from Vision Australia. He has been amazing and has tried hard and if the XXXXwits at Centrelink would allow the Disability Pension he could have kept his house at least for longer.

        I sometimes take some of the people he used to care for around and have coffee with him at a nearby coffee shop and this seems to help as when you care for people with disabilities it becomes quite personal. Many of these people were “friends” even if that is never recognised by some. It is a further wrench when you suddenly don’t see people you have been caring for.

      • jane says:

        I don’t think Andrews or Centrelink, for that matter are showing an astonishing lack of knowledge; they are showing an astonishing lack of care, interest, empathy and compassion.

        It’s absolutely sickening that your friend can’t get DSP because being legally blind isn’t a disability, ffs!

        This is definitely a reason for the country to be up-in-arms. I imagine petitions will be raised and I think it behoves everybody to inform all politicians that they will lose votes if they implement this piece of thuggery.

        I don’t think I have known a government so corrupt and lacking in any form of decency. What is worse is their utter hypocrisy piously claiming to be Christian when they are anything but.

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