(Image: Getty)

This is part three in a three-part series on mental health services. Read parts one and two here.

The elderly, people with disabilities, and veterans — along with their families — spend hundreds upon hundreds of hours lodging applications and waiting to access vital support from Australia’s social services. 

Those who do not have the support systems or the capacity to do so simply miss out. 

Here are some of their stories.

Hundreds of pages of documents for the NDIS

For the past two years Mary Sempf has been trying to get NDIS for her son Andrew, who lives with schizophrenia and severe anxiety. While Centrelink pays for some of her son’s services, including a support worker to accompany him on shopping trips, and a weekly cleaner, often 65-year-old Sempf is left to foot the bill. 

“He’s been rejected from the NDIS a couple of times because they think I haven’t provided enough information,” she told Inq.

Sempf has handed more than 100 pages of documentation from a psychologist alone. When she was about to submit a doctor’s report — one of the final pieces of paperwork necessary — she was told the application had timed out, and she would have to start all over. 

Andrew Sempf (Image: supplied)

“[Andrew] does not have the mental capacity to organise his own support, but is expected to,” she said.

Another woman told Inq she had spent more than 95 hours across 12 months to get the NDIS for a physical disability, with 25 of those hours spent drafting reports and conducting literature reviews to understand what was needed for submission. “That’s a conservative estimate,” she said. 

Former mental health occupational therapist and Sydney University senior lecturer Nicola Hancock told Inq the application process was “incredibly complex”. 

“The complexity creates the biggest barrier. If someone doesn’t have a lot of support in order to apply, they’re unlikely to be able to submit an application or submit an application that will get accepted,” she said. 

People with psychosocial disabilities often don’t have access to mental health services due to limited services, and often don’t apply for the NDIS, because they are fearful of the application process, have unstable mental health, lack resources, or are unable to obtain the evidence needed due to limited contact with services. 

“To get [the evidence] you need connections and contact with someone with that expertise,” she said, which is often a time consuming and costly process. 

The government plans to announce specific improvements to speed up the application process on July 1.

Years waiting for aged care packages

James* estimates he spent 70 hours in total trying to organise My Aged Care packages for his parents. He told Inq the hardest thing was understanding what each government department and service provider did.

“It’s so complex. Every individual government service and private service provider were easy to deal with — the problem was making them all line up,” he said. 

There’s no standard for how providers bill for their services, be it hourly, monthly or yearly, so understanding which were the most cost-effective providers was a “nightmare”, he said. 

James spent more than $1200 on getting certified copies of documentation, as well as paying an accountant to complete a tax and income assessment after realising it was too complex for him to do on his own. 

He is also concerned whether the date on which his mum’s new package is supposed to begin will be pushed back thanks to COVID-19. 

“The high-level package she’s been granted may be delayed,” he said. “The system is very time consuming. You’ve got to jump through all these hoops.” 

In 90% of cases, approval for the highest-level home care packages takes 35 months

Leading Age Services Australia CEO Sean Rooney told Inq problems with the My Aged Care website were well documented, with people struggling to understand terminology or use the website. 

“To make it easier for people to access Home Care Packages, we need sustained, planned investment from the government,” he said. 

The government announced investment for an additional 10,000 home care packages between 2019 and 2021, though Rooney notes more funding is needed to speed up approval wait times.

“Without this additional investment, the national queue will likely increase in size, and older Australians will continue to struggle to access timely care and support, leading to avoidable hospital admissions and early entry to residential care,” he said.  

The department of health did not respond to Inq’s request for comment.

‘Blowout’ in wait times for veteran compensation

A 2019 Productivity Commission inquiry report into veteran support found the system was overly complex, archaic and poorly administered — despite being one of Australia’s most generous worker compensation schemes. 

There are eight different compensation claim types, governed by three separate pieces of legislation.

Former Australian Defence Force member and veteran advocate Ian Harrison told Inq the process has been simplified over the past five years. 

“It takes minutes to complete through the online application form,” he said. The main problem was the wait times.

Veteran Ian Harrison.
Veteran Ian Harrison pictured at recruit training in 1979 (Image: supplied)

“Over the past year there’s been an influx of applications, and now the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has a massive backlog,” he said. “Timeframes have blown out.” 

A spokesman for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) told Inq in 2018-19 there was an 80% increase in claims from the previous year.

Harrison said the main issue was the introduction of rehabilitation claims. Veterans have to wait until they go through rehabilitation and treatment, then get reassessed for permanent injury before they receive compensation. 

“That can be more than two years waiting,” he said. 

The DVA spokesman said rehabilitation plans and assessment has not increased wait times, but could not provide data on wait time averages.

“DVA has also streamlined processing for 40 of the most commonly claimed conditions, with eight conditions able to be instantly approved,” he said.

Under a trial program running until the end of this month, veterans can still access medical treatment while waiting for a claim to be processed. The funds don’t have to be repaid if a claim is rejected.

*Names changed for privacy