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Support Coordinators (SC), a fundamental thread in the fabric of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) for many, are facing some tough times. Many SC companies feel wobbly, from public comments that have damaged their reputation among providers and participants alike, to economic pressures making it hard to stay afloat. Adding further to the uncertainty, the NDIS is currently undergoing an in-depth review by the government, which will bring about further changes to how the scheme operates.

As the founder and director of an independent SC company, I understand this wobbly feeling better than most. Given the impact of Minister Bill Shorten’s comments, the stagnation of SC pricing, and the economic challenges of inflation, cost of living increases, and wage hikes, running an independent SC business is becoming increasingly challenging. And then, we have the threat that the NDIA will phase SCs out of the scheme for a new role—a super LAC, to be known as ‘navigators’.

Shorten’s Comments and Their Impact

Minister Bill Shorten recently made headlines with disparaging remarks. Labelling Support Coordinators and Plan Managers as ‘fraudsters’ has sent shockwaves through the industry. These comments, which Mr Shorten wound back shortly after making them to “some Support Coordinators,” were aimed at addressing concerns about integrity and financial management within the NDIS, but they have, unfortunately, in the eyes of the participants, painted the entire Support Coordination sector with a broad brush. The fallout from these statements is twofold. Firstly, they undermine the trust that participants place in their Support Coordinators. Trust is the cornerstone of effective support; without it, the relationship between SCs and participants can become strained, leading to decreased effectiveness in service delivery and ultimately impacting the participant.

Secondly, Mr Shorten’s comments have impacted the morale of Support Coordination professionals. Many in the field are dedicated and ethical workers who feel unfairly maligned. This generalisation risks demotivating these dedicated professionals and could contribute to an exodus of experienced staff, further destabilising the sector.

Stagnant Pricing and Economic Pressures

Another significant issue plaguing SC companies is the lack of a price rise for the ‘Support Coordination’ line item four years in a row. While the cost of living and inflation have surged, the fees that SC companies can charge have remained static. This stagnation in pricing means that SC companies are effectively trying to keep a business afloat in today’s economic climate with an income that was barely making ends meet four years ago.

This severely impacts the quality and availability of services in a sector where resources are already stretched thin. Although well-deserved, the recently announced 3.75% wage increase and 0.5% superannuation increase exacerbate this issue. SC companies will be expected to absorb these increased labour costs, which threaten to erode an already minuscule profit margin to unsustainable levels for most businesses.

Challenges with NDIA’s Requirements and Independent SCs

In their review of the scheme, the government has stated that it wants Support Coordinators to be NDIS registered and independent, meaning they should not provide other service offerings to avoid conflicts of interest. While this is a commendable goal, Support Coordination alone is not financially viable for many businesses due to the stagnant pricing and the high costs of running a compliant operation.

More concerningly, we are seeing a trend of Support Coordinators leaving their employment and stepping out on their own as unregistered Support Coordinators.

These unregistered SCs don’t have the massive overheads of employing staff and remaining compliant with registration, making this option more financially lucrative than being paid the award rate by an employer. While this may seem an excellent choice for these individuals, it poses significant risks for participants and the scheme’s integrity.

The influx of these ‘cowboy’ providers has flooded the NDIS with individuals who may not adhere to the code of conduct as rigorously as a registered provider. Many of these unregistered SCs prey on vulnerable clients, enticing them away from registered providers, where they are often more protected. Without the oversight and structure a registered organisation offers, participants are at greater risk of receiving substandard support and being taken advantage of—exactly what the review is trying to crack down on.

Companies Dropping Support Coordination

The economic squeeze registered providers are under creates a precarious situation in which SC companies’ ability to provide quality services is compromised.

Scores of companies are already dropping Support Coordination from their offerings, leaving participants under-supported. One such company stated on its website that the direct catalyst for its decision was the “financial viability” of remaining registered and compliant. This alarming trend leads to a gap in essential services, putting additional strain on remaining SC companies and creating uncertainty for participants who rely on consistent support.

CoAbility’s Response: Streamlining for Stability

At CoAbility, we’ve recognised the need to adapt swiftly and efficiently to the challenges facing us as a Support Coordination company. To ensure our long-term sustainability and continue providing high-quality support to our participants, we’ve undertaken a comprehensive review and restructuring of our organisation.

We’ve peeled our organisational structure right back, ‘trimming the fat’ and focusing solely on the essential staff needed to make our business function effectively. By reducing layers of management and streamlining our operations, we have created a leaner, more agile team that is better equipped to respond to the needs of our participants. This approach allows us to allocate resources more efficiently and ensures that every team member plays a crucial role in delivering our services. With a focus on essential roles, we can maintain a high level of service while keeping our operational costs in check.

We’ve also reduced overhead costs by closing our bricks-and-mortar offices and using flexible working spaces when needed. We hire community houses, learning centres, and co-working spaces for meetings and team sessions, allowing us to take advantage of affordable meeting spaces in our participants’ communities. We conduct more meetings in the community, like the walk-and-talk and drop-in sessions we do with our participants in Collingwood and Fitzroy. These strategic changes allow us to continue providing high-quality support to our participants despite the economic pressures.

Our commitment to this lean structure means surviving and thriving, even in a challenging economic environment. By doing more with less, we ensure that CoAbility remains a reliable and steadfast provider of Support Coordination services, dedicated to empowering and supporting our participants every step of the way.

Because of our commitment to remaining viable in the current climate, we are open to working with providers who are no longer providing Support Coordination to offer their participants a smooth transition to CoAbility for the continuity of their services and support. We have already supported several participants in making the transition, and through a transparent, collaborative approach, the participants experience minimal disruption to their SC services.

In my opinion, Support Coordination companies have every right to be feeling wobbly. At the moment, it feels like every aspect of the NDIS is working against our longevity and success. Minister Bill Shorten’s comments have cast a shadow of mistrust over the whole SC cohort, while the absence of a price rise over the last four years is a definite message about what the big-wigs in the scheme feel about the value SC adds to the lives of participants. Inflation and rising living costs have put enormous financial pressure on already struggling businesses. It is crucial to address these issues holistically to ensure the stability and viability of Support Coordination services unless the plan was always to push providers out of the scheme to make way for ‘navigators’. Only time will tell, but one thing’s certain: CoAbility will be here for the long haul.

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