Tuesday 7 April 2009

Report of the Joint Standing Committee on Community Development on the provision of assistive technology and equipment for people with disabilities noted
Mr FINCH (Rosevears – Motion) - Madam President, I move -
That the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Community Development on the provision of assistive technology and equipment for people with disabilities be considered and noted. 
Tasmania has the highest rate of people with disabilities in Australia.  In 2003, the latest figures available to the committee showed that 23.5 per cent of Tasmanians had some sort of disability, and of course our ageing population is one of the reasons for that high figure.  Of these, about 95 000 face limitations and restrictions on their normal activities and there are 37 000 who have severe activity limitations, and that is almost 8 per cent of Tasmanians.  Based on these 2003 figures, the efficient provision of assistive technology and equipment for people with disabilities is highly important for about 112 000 Tasmanians and absolutely vital for 37 000.  The distribution of technology and equipment to make life more normal for these people is mainly through the Community Equipment Scheme or the CES. 
Madam President, the Community Development Committee found the present distribution system is inefficient and underfunded and the committee has made 17 findings and 18 recommendations.  It found, among other things, that the Community Equipment Scheme is not functioning as efficiently as possible and it needs restructuring.
Madam President, the provision of equipment and technologies that enable people with disabilities to live as full a life as possible can no longer be seen as an ideal to be pursued when government budgets allow, but a right that is now enshrined in international law. 
On 17 July 2008, the Australian Government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and consequently the Tasmanian Government is bound by the provisions of this treaty and must now ensure equality of access for all.
However, the committee has found that whilst there are complexities involved in the operation of the Community Equipment Scheme, serious under funding of the service has skewed its priorities and many individuals on waiting lists have little hope of ever receiving help.
The timely provision of equipment and technologies to people with disabilities should be seen as a social investment as it helps to prevent the deterioration of conditions that would otherwise need more intensive and costly interventions and, more importantly, it helps restore dignity to the individual.
Yet the crisis in community equipment funding was graphically illustrated in evidence provided by a member of the Northern Equipment Scheme panel, who indicated that monthly allocation for the entire northern region totalled $6 000 while the monthly applications for assistance were typically about $100 000.
So you can imagine, member for Launceston, you are dealing with an allocation of $6 000 and you have submissions coming to you, all meaningful and all people who need help and that is why they have submitted, and you have a total of $100 000.
Mr Wing - That is for the north?
Mr FINCH - For the northern region.
Mr Wing - Is there disparity between the regions?
Mr FINCH - Yes there is.  That was a figure that could be highlighted because it was so graphic, $6 000 to allocate and there is a need there of $100 000 - a frightening discrepancy.  It means that many of the most vulnerable people in our community are being disadvantaged.  Many submissions to the committee told of the struggle that people with disabilities have in funding equipment.
The cap on assistance for non-standard equipment was especially onerous on people with disabilities who may have to contribute as much as $14 000 towards items such as electric wheelchairs.  Long delays in providing assistive equipment can contribute to a deterioration in the person's condition and that can lead to a lot of very unnecessary suffering.
The committee was told, for example, that delays in providing children with wheelchairs often meant that they outgrow them by the time that they arrive.  The committee also found that not only is funding for the scheme far too low but is unevenly distributed across Tasmania.  The committee recommends, among other things, that funding for aids and equipment be provided on a per capita basis.
While there are hardship guidelines for the loan and hire of equipment, the committee found that many low-income families struggled with the enormous costs involved.  It recommends a more flexible assessment approach.  There is no central database to track and efficiently distribute equipment.  The committee heard that many items of equipment are lost or just lying unused in garages and sheds across the State.  There is no maintenance plan for CES equipment.  It is only serviced and repaired when it breaks down.  Imagine people who have an electric wheelchair and cannot get it serviced.  There is nothing there in respect to a maintenance plan, their wheelchair breaks down and they have to go without a wheelchair until it is repaired and brought back to them.
Ms Forrest - It takes ages sometimes.
Mr FINCH - It takes ages, so how do they get on in the meantime?
Mrs Jamieson - Not just ages it takes years, two years sometimes.
Mr FINCH - It was obvious to the committee that Tasmania's Community Equipment Scheme is failing in its main aim to enable people with disabilities to achieve their maximum potential as members of the community.  Perhaps the most important recommendation is the final one.  The committee recommends that the Tasmanian Government consult with the Commonwealth on the possibility of making the provision of aids and equipment to people with disabilities a national scheme funded by the Federal Government under the Medicare Scheme.
In the meantime our committee hopes that the State Government will move quickly to implement its other recommendations.