A homemade wooden ramp running alongside a barbed-wire fence leads to the two caravans Jay White calls home. It’s not an ideal living situation for anyone, let alone for someone in a wheelchair.
White has paid one company almost $5000 from his National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) funding to help him organise modifications to make his home more accessible. But nothing has been done.
When he complained, the company dropped him as a client — before draining nine weeks’ worth of funding from his NDIS account despite not providing any new services.
The company then refunded the money after a request for comment by Inq.
It’s one of many ways people with disabilities are being scammed out of their taxpayer funded NDIS budgets.
An Inq investigation has revealed that:
- Low-level fraud goes unprosecuted, with a former investigator saying scams are rife within the NDIS
- NDIS participants have said companies withdraw weekly funds while not providing services
- The inflating of invoices is common, with companies charging double or triple the amount of time worked.
Account drained while waiting for help
White, who is 32 years old, moved out of his parents’ home to Bargo in Sydney’s west in 2013. He was approved for NDIS funding a year later. He has scoliosis, chronic pain and severe muscle spasms.
People with disabilities can request a separate pool of funding to hire support co-ordinators. These groups organise and pay other disability workers involved in the client’s care, and have direct access to a person’s NDIS funds. They can charge between $61.76 and $285.80 an hour for their services.
White hired Trusted Support Coordination in November last year to organise home modifications like a ramp, and support workers to help him get out into the community.
The company began withdrawing $96.91 a week for their services. But White has organised all of his support workers, funding and outings himself. No progress has been made on getting home modifications approved.
He’s sent a number of emails, viewed by Inq, to the company since March, to complain about the lack of progress.
In response to his emails, a manager accused White of outlining “unreasonable criticisms”. On Friday September 4, they cancelled services with him. By this stage, Trusted Support had charged White $4942.
That following Monday, Trusted Support made eight withdrawals for backdated “support co-ordination” from White’s account of $100.14, and another withdrawal for $100.03 two days later, totalling $901.26.
After being contacted by Inq, Trusted Support refunded the nine transactions.
The CEO of Trusted Support’s parent company, Disability Trust, Margaret Bowen told Inq that the organisation has opened an internal investigation.
“I am both appalled and dismayed at the distressing nature of the initial correspondence emailed to Mr White,” she said.
“It is with great regret that we did not live up to our own high standards in this instance.”
Bowen did not comment on the lack of progress made on White’s home.
Former fraud investigator says scams rife
The NDIS Fraud Taskforce works with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to prosecute people scamming the system. But since it was established in 2018, there have been just three convictions.
John Higgins is a former senior fraud investigations officer who worked at the taskforce between January and September 2019. He told Inq the rhetoric within the taskforce was as many as one in 10 claims were fraudulent. In a $22 billion system, that’s a lot of money.
“Those were the kind of figures we used to talk about. People just shrugged and said, there’s always going to be fraud,” he said. The NDIS disputes this statement, saying the agency’s tolerance level for fraud is zero.
From July 2018 to July 2020, the NDIS reimbursed 909 participants who had been victims of fraud, totalling $3.8 million.
A risk assessment by the Australian National Audit Office found participant-plan expenses were high risk and susceptible to fraud due to the reliance on third parties to provide information.
Higgins, who spent most of his career working as an officer with the AFP, said the taskforce team was small and lacked specialist skills. He says in the months before his departure he was the only full-time investigator.
“If you don’t have investigators you won’t find fraud … If you identify an issue in the public service then the problem is with the system,” he said.
An NDIS spokesperson told Inq there are over 120 staff working within the Scheme Integrity Branch, which has wide-ranging responsibilities, though wouldn’t provide a further breakdown of the taskforce.
Higgins says the taskforce’s focus on organised crime meant more common kinds of fraud, such as inflating invoices, went uninvestigated.
“You can claim four hours for one hour of work,” he said.
“If people aren’t monitoring their portals, and a lot aren’t, you won’t notice until you have to use your funding and find it’s all gone.”
One of the few powers of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, the NDIS’ regulatory body, is to deregister providers. Higgins says when fraudulent companies get found, they simply deregister themselves and the commission stops investigating.
“It’s very profitable stealing from the NDIS,” he said.
In the six months from July 1 to December 31 last year, the latest figures available, the task force received 2161 tip-offs. Of those, they investigated 1186. Along with the three convictions, the task force has are another six cases before the courts.
Overclaims not uncommon
Luke* relies on the NDIS for services to help with his prosthetic leg. He told Inq the amount of overcharging is huge.
“The average taxpayer would shit bricks on what is spent underserving and overcharging,” he said.
In one instance, Luke said he paid $97 for a seven-minute phone call, billed as 30 minutes. Another bill shows a provider charging the cost of a full hour, despite the bill stating the appointment lasted 30 minutes.
“I’m being charged for things I don’t have or receive,” he said.
While providers can claim time spent on non-face-to-face, direct care-related activities such as administration and travel costs, the participant is supposed to agree to them. Luke still hasn’t received itemised invoices for services.
Inq has spoken to another six participants and providers who say they or their clients have been receiving inflated invoices.
The NDIS spokesperson told Inq that all reports of suspected fraudulent activity are taken seriously, and providers and employees are required to comply with the NDIS code of conduct.
Anyone with concerns that fraud is being committed against the NDIS should contact the NDIS fraud hotline on 1800 650 717.
*Name changed for privacy
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