There are calls for the Department of Human Services to cease forcing people with Down Syndrome to continually get medical documents to prove they still have Down Syndrome to keep their disability support pension.

In successive budgets from the 2014-2015 financial year on, the government has tasked the department to conduct tens of thousands of reviews every year for people on the DSP, with the aim of reducing the number of recipients who could otherwise be working. As part of the crackdown, the department began conducting medical eligibility reviews for people on the DSP aged 35 and under as well as a separate review for people over 35. In a report tabled in Parliament today, the Joint Standing Committee of Public Accounts and Audit found that DHS had been targeting people for medical reviews who were not likely to have improved medical conditions.

“The Committee heard evidence from submitters that data matching with other Government payments and systems is not being used to exclude recipients who present little risk of becoming ineligible for the DSP,” the report stated.

The committee was reviewing the government’s response to the ANAO’s review of the disability support pension qualification scheme in 2016. The committee found that while the government was hoping to save millions of dollars in money by moving people off the DSP onto Newstart or into work, just 1.6% of the reviews resulted in people being moved off the DSP. This was down significantly from the 13.7% of reviews leading to a cancellation of a DSP payment in 2014-2015. The committee said that this showed that the targeting of people being reviewed should be evaluated.

Down Syndrome Australia, for example, reported that many people with Down Syndrome were being targeted for medical reviews, despite their condition not changing.

“Down Syndrome is a chromosomal condition. It doesn’t change over time. It’s really inappropriate to be asking people to again prove they have a disability which is something that is lifelong and isn’t going to change,” Down Syndrome Australia CEO Dr Ellen Skladzien told Crikey

“It creates a lot of stress for the person with Down Syndrome and their family to go through all of this endless paperwork, going through endless appointments to get medical evidence, all being asked for in a very short period of time.”

Down Syndrome is not listed as a condition that allows people to be permanently put on the DSP without needing further medical reviews after the initial application. In one bizarre exchange during the committee’s hearings in November last year, the Department of Human Services refused to say whether Down Syndrome could be cured. 

The department has not released data on how many people with Down Syndrome or any other disabilities that do not change were targeted as part of the review, nor how many were kicked off the DSP as a result of those reviews.

Skladzien said aside from the stress and inconvenience it caused people with Down Syndrome, it was also a waste of money: “This is taxpayer money to do these reviews. The government is spending money to have people with Down Syndrome show that they still have a condition which is a lifelong condition.”

The committee has recommended the department provide full details on the outcome of its reviews of recipients on the DSP and conduct an end-to-end review of the DSP program. It has also recommended that the department assess its capture of data from state and territories as part of targeting the reviews, and review the list of conditions that allow people to be automatically exempt from further medical reviews, with a view to include Down Syndrome.

Labor’s human services spokeswoman, Linda Burney, said in a statement that the review process had “subjected severely disabled people and their carers to a campaign of cruelty and harassment”.

Julian Hill, Labor’s deputy chair of the committee reviewing the report, said there had been dozens of submissions to the committee showing poorly targeted reviews by the department had picked on vulnerable Australians and forced them to get medical evidence “to prove the bleedingly obvious”.

“The true costs to government of undertaking DSP reviews, including waste in Medicare to gather medical evidence, remain a secret as DHS won’t release the regulatory impact statement. The burden borne by carers is much higher and is outrageous.”

In the budget this year, the government has said it will take people solely claiming the DSP for alcohol or drug abuse reasons off the support payment.

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Peter Fray
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