Queenslanders with disabilities hospitalised years longer than necessary

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed cracks in the NDIS system that are leaving people with disabilities forced to stay in hospital for months or even years longer than necessary.

Documents obtained under Queensland’s Right to Information laws show in late March this year, there were 296 patients in Queensland Health beds who were eligible for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and ready to be discharged.

In a ministerial briefing note dated March 27, the acting senior policy officer in the Disability and Multicultural Health Unit said on average, these patients “usually wait two-to-three months to leave hospital and sometimes years”.

“This is far too long, especially considering that patients with comorbidities are at a greater risk of fatality as a result of COVID-19,” he wrote.

“NDIS participants in acute and subacute public beds would be exposed to and are at high risk of contracting the virus.”

The policy officer recommended the Minister write to both the Commonwealth Ministers for Social Services, Health, Aged Care and the NDIS to request an urgent response to discharge long-stay patients at risk of contracting COVID-19.

“With urgent action from the NDIA [National Disability Insurance Agency], long-stay patients could be discharged within days or weeks,” the briefing note said.

“While local NDA staff are attempting to fast-track patient discharge, they are continuing to strictly adhere to the NDA usual policy positions.

“There is no flexibility to consider innovative but safe options for this patient cohort.”

Queensland Health sent a letter to the Federal Government in April requesting urgent action. Since then, 392 long-stay patients have been moved out of hospitals and into “appropriate accommodation”.

“We’re asking that they [the Federal Government] keep up that commitment,” a Queensland Health spokesman said.

“We encourage the NDIA to take the lead in the ongoing effort to make sure these patients have access to the support and accommodation that suits their needs best.”

Delays raise broader questions, advocates say

In late June, there were still 197 long-stay disability patients in Queensland Health settings who were ready for discharge and were eligible for the NDIS.

People with Disability Australia (PWDA) said it was also aware NSW Health faced a similar problem.

PWDA’s director of policy and advocacy, Romola Hollywood, said the organisation made inquiries about the issue in April and again in May.

“While no-one wants to or should stay in hospital longer than is necessary, we were concerned that people with disability were being fast-tracked out of hospital into unsuitable, sub-standard housing arrangements,” she said.

Ms Hollywood said PWDA received assurances from NDIA and NSW Health officials that all people being discharged had suitable accommodation and support, but nonetheless COVID-19 had highlighted some important issues.

“It does raise a broader and underlying question about why there had been such prolonged delays for people with disability leaving hospital when they were approved to be discharged,” she said.

“It seems odd that it took the COVID-19 pandemic for state and Commonwealth agencies to work together to take action.

“We also hope that the people with disability who have left hospital under the fast-track scheme are now living in suitable permanent housing that meets their own goals and needs.”

An NDIA spokeswoman said the fast-track process had not compromised the level of funding and support participants had received for their accommodation.

“During March to June 2020, the NDIA enabled funding for medium-term accommodation for participants to safely exit hospital and ensure they had access to appropriate accommodation,” she said.

“The NDIA also provided support and funding in plans for interim home modifications and assistive technology to enable people to safely return home, while their longer-term modifications were assessed and funded.”

The authority revealed more than 1,700 NDIS participants across Australia had been discharged from hospital between April 1 and August 28, 2020.

ABC News Disability Direct

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