Disability Support Pension: Advocate insights on what’s changed over the past 10 years

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Economic Justice Australia

Last year, Linda Forbes, long-time Welfare Rights advocate with decades of experience, returned to the Welfare Rights Centre as the supervisor of the Disability Support Pension Clinic (DSP Clinic), after 10 years working in the health sector.

What are the most significant changes you’ve seen since returning to welfare rights work?

Apart from the temporary COVID-19 measures, the most significant changes have been to Disability Support Pension – with fundamental changes to the Social Security Act’s qualification criteria and Impairment Tables, and to Centrelink’s assessment processes.

The rationale for these changes was to target the payment to people with significant permanent impairments limiting work capacity, and to promote consistency in decision-making. The overall aim was to reduce the rate of new grants of DSP, and new grant data since 2016 makes it clear that this aim has been met. The question is whether in focusing on bringing down grant rates, we’re leaving vulnerable groups of people with disability who should qualify for DSP sidelined by the complexity.

If you could change one thing to make the DSP claim process easier, what would it be?

Removal of the requirement that DSP claimants submit pro forma Treating Doctor Reports (TDRs) as part of the claim process has made it more difficult for claimants and doctors to understand what information should ideally be provided to support a DSP claim. See for example EJA’s research report https://www.ejaustralia.org.au/general/disability-support-pension-dsp-project-a-snapshot-of-dsp-client-experiences-of-claims-and-assessments-since-the-2015-changes/

The standard TDR Centrelink proforma, which treating doctors were required to complete (a statutory requirement), was a source of guidance for claimants and doctors about the information needed for decision-makers to determine DSP eligibility.

The removal of the TDR requirement can mean that a claimant with severe disability and minimal or no capacity for work has their DSP claim rejected, simply because they and their doctor are unaware of the specific information needed to establish eligibility. A GP may have ample specialist reports on record that would establish their patient’s eligibility for DSP but they are only informed of the relevance of these reports once their patient has been refused DSP – and then only if their patient understands this, and is able to pass the information on their doctor.

One senior solicitor told us that most of their clients’ difficulties over the years have come down to removal of the TDR … with both treating doctors and claimants ‘flying blind for lack of information re what they’re required to show. Most clients had never heard of the concepts ‘fully diagnosed, treated and stabilised’, ‘continuing inability to work’, ‘impairment’, ‘Impairment Tables’, ‘program of support requirements’, etc., until receiving their DSP rejection letter.’

Do you think that the DSP legislation can be administered fairly?

No. Coming back to this work, it is clear to me that the complexity of DSP legislation and assessment processes has created systemic barriers that are contributing to the reduction in DSP claims, grants and appeals. This culling effect is iniquitous and excludes many people with severe disability from accessing DSP purely because they cannot meet the rigours of the processes involved in claiming and appealing. The complexity can constitute an insurmountable barrier for people with psychosocial disability or cognitive impairment, and people in regional and remote Australia.

The result is that there is an expanding pool of people with significant disability on JobSeeker Payment (previously Newstart Allowance) indefinitely, who struggle to comply with mutual obligation requirements – for the very same reasons they lack the wherewithal to pursue DSP claims and appeals.