Disability Reform: One Woman’s Journey

Cerebral Palsy League CEO Angela Tillmans

Cerebral Palsy League CEO Angela Tillmans

ANGELA Tillmans will never forget May 8, 2013.

The proud disability rights advocate fell to her knees when the radio in her Gold Coast home signaled the end of a broken era.

She saw the rare display of bipartisan support from Australia’s political leaders as “the greatest health care reform this country has seen in more than 30 years”.

Ms Tillmans – who heads up the Cerebral Palsy League – has been battling for disability reforms in Queensland for more than three years.

“I will never forget the moment Queensland signed onto the National Disability Insurance Scheme,” she said.

“It means the end of standardized payments and the beginning of real choices for families.

“There were times when we thought it would not go through.

“It was hard dealing with all the political strategies.

“I had trouble sleeping. It was very crippling knowing I was part of a system that was letting people through the cracks.

“That is why I dedicated so much time to the changes.

“I saw a huge group of people in Australia that had been forgotten and I wanted to help rectify it.”

However, the work has just begun for Ms Tillmans.

Her organization receives $55 million a year from state and Federal Governments to provide disability services.

That will end in 2019.

She said while the transition would be challenging, it would provide greater services and options across the country.

“We had a system where patients could not chose specific treatments,” she said.

“Children were given only four hours a year for speech development sessions.

“Cerebral Palsy creates a broad range of problems and not every case is the same.

“Some people have problems speaking and need pathologists to work with them extensively at an early age.

“Other people have physical ailments and can barely walk.

“For them physiotherapy is far more essential.

“The money will now go directly to families and people with Cerebral Palsy and let them choose the best options.”

She said the industry would double in size in a mater of years.

“The move will attract big players,” she said.

“Around $1billion is injected into disability services every year.

“We are expecting that number to double with the arrival of privitised treatment facilities.

“It will effectively mean organisations will have to provide better and more efficient treatment options in order to retain clients.

“The entire way we do business will change.

“If families are unhappy with a service, they will simply move on to another provider.

“It will force organisations to cater more extensively to the needs of those with disabilities.”

The scheme is being hailed as the single biggest increase in Australia’s disability funding by political leaders.

While the scheme only recently became official, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman committed to it in 2012, pending details of funding.

“The $868 million the State Government announced last December laid the foundation for todays heads of agreement,” Mr Newman said as Queensland officially adopted the policy.

“It is one of the biggest single increases in disability funding this country has ever seen.”

Ms Tillmans was part of multiple disability negotiations with the Newman government.

She said despite popular belief, Mr Newman was very much in support of the current funding proposal.

“During one of the meetings he even proposed an increase of Queensland’s contribution to the Medicare levy,” she said.

“Of course everyone was up in arms about the suggestion.

“Some people even walked out.

“I think everyone was afraid that the Australian people would not support the concept.”

Ms Tillmans was left “dumbfounded” by what she described as a “cultural revolution”

“Everyone I have spoken to has supported the levy,” she said.

“The media even tore into a certain CEO who spoke out against it.

“I could not believe that people were so ready to speak up for those that have lost their voice.”

She referred – of course – to Myer boss Bernie Brookes who believed a levy would hurt consumer confidence.

Mr Brookes told a Macquarie conference in Syndey – one week before Queensland signed onto the agreement – that the levy would hurt Australians.

“Today’s announcement about another 0.5 per cent on the Medicare levy is not good for our customers and not good for the discretionary income world, and ideally that’s another one that may have an impact,” he told a Macquarie conference in Sydney.

“Remember, a lot of our customers have equity portfolios, they’ve got superannuation and they get the bills each week, and suddenly the Medicare levy costs them another $300 from July next year and that’s $300 they might have spent with us.”

Ms Tillmans said she did not expect Australians to support the funding arrangement.

“Seeing the media depict his comments as unethical and inappropriate made me realise how far we have come as a nation.

“It was only 30 years ago when we did not have any real scheme for those with disabilities.

“Now we have an entire country accepting that we all need to contribute for those less fortunate.

“It is a proud day to be an Australian.”

However, she said the political journey the legislation went through was confusing and almost damaging for the industry.

“Sometimes not knowing can be enough to throw off investors.

“How are families supposed to plan for their future when no leaders can agree.

“It was difficult trying to explain to the public that we just did not know what was going to happen in even the next few months.”

In May, 2012 the Queensland government went into crisis management after refusing to immediately sign the Federal Labor Government’s disability proposal.

A Right to Information investigation revealed directives from the Newman Government’s senior media advisers to Lee Anderson and his team regarding the policy.

The document detailed the “shell response” disability minister Tracy Davis adopted in relation to the federal comments.

“For your records, the office of Minister Davis is going to use this as their shell response in relation to the NDIS, in particular for questions which come in from the public about the Government’s position,” the e-mail said.

“We are still waiting to hear from the commonwealth about how it plans to fund the scheme, particularly offer the long term.

“We have been given nothing to look at or consider and it would be irresponsible of us to sign up to any deal without seeing the details first.

“It would also be unfair to thousands of Queenslanders living with a disability to commit to a scheme without having all the information.

“Regardless of this, the Newman Government will continue to push ahead with its election commitments to improve disability and support services.

“They include $22 million for respite care for people aged 16 to 25, establishing ‘ParentConnect’ to provide assistance to parents of newborns with a disability and a $9.5 million boost for speech pathologists in schools.”

The conversation highlights the political uncertainty that surrounded the scheme as recently as one year ago, according to Ms Tillmans.

“While many aspects of the plan are still very much in the planning stage, now that the political leaders are in agreement, we can expect them to fully facilitate discussions from an industry perspective and a public perspective.” she said.

“Now that the wait and see approach is over, we can start working with families to find the best ways to move forward.

“It is an exciting time from our point of view.”

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