Politics — 31 May 2017
Health Department deputy secretary Mark Cormack speaks during Senate estimates. Picture: AAP

Health Department deputy secretary Mark Cormack speaks during Senate estimates. Picture: AAP

Federal officials admit they have no way of knowing how many people with severe mental illness will be supported by a last-minute funding intervention to plug an emerging gap between old community support and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Health Department deputy secretary Mark Cormack told a Senate estimates hearing yesterday it was “hard to say how many people” the four-year, $80 million funding boost would support around the edges of the NDIS because the nature of mental illness was too unpredictable.

The uncertainty has implications for the scale and cost of the disability scheme. The Australian has revealed the extent of the mental health crisis developing in the sector in reports that showed state and federal programs were withdrawing from community mental health funding in favour of the $22 billion NDIS.

The department says 280,000 people with serious mental illness are eligible for individual support and, of them, it believes 91,000 qualify for NDIS, leaving about 190,000 people reliant on old support systems. However, only 64,000 places have been planned in the disability scheme.

Crucially, Mr Cormack said the federal government did not know precisely what the states planned to do with current mental health funding.

“We need to work out what of their investments now in this space are going totally or partially to the NDIS and what is left,” he said. “ … we are not entirely clear on a state-by-state basis what their continuing plans are for the cohort of 190,000 people who do not come under the eligibility for the NDIS.”

Historically the commonwealth funded only about a quarter of the community mental-health budget while states were responsible for the rest, he said.

“I am certainly not denying that there are gaps for service coverage for some groups of clients but the states have primary responsibility here.”

Mr Cormack warned the states that the $80 million new funding was to cover existing and new clients who would not meet strict NDIS criteria and should not be used “as a substitute for the existing responsibility of the states”.

“It will certainly not be a program that allows the states to divest on the back of common­wealth funding,” he said.

Mr Cormack yesterday cast further doubt on NDIS numbers.

“The main thing we don’t know, that we will know soon, is how many of the 280,000 (total) figure will transfer into the NDIS,” he said.

“It is not easy to simply apply a formula for this clientele of people.”

Health Minister Greg Hunt secured the $80m from the budget, to be spent across state and territory jurisdictions, but only where states agreed to match the funding dollar for dollar.

If one state does not sign up, its share of the money is to be spread across the jurisdictions that do participate.

This piece was first seen on ‘The Australian’ May 31 2017.

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