‘Privatised profit over people’: NDIS contract stirs questions



“We should be taking a step back and examining how the government and their private industry partners are profiting from social programs meant to support disadvantaged Australians who could have been endangered in the process”: Samantha Connor, president of People with Disabilities Australia. Image: Shutterstock

A lucrative contract to conduct independent client assessments for the National Disability Insurance Agency – a program scrapped after a public backlash – was awarded to a healthcare provider with directors who also served on the board of an aged care operator accused of multiple care failures by the national regulator.

John Hickey, a board director at Zenitas Healthcare – one of eight health care providers contracted by the NDIA to conduct independent assessments – is also a director of CraigCare, which was found by the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission to have failed to comply with standards four times over the past three years, an investigation by The Citizen reveals. The failures occurred at nursing homes in Pascoe Vale, Moonee Ponds and, in Western Australia, in Albany and Perth.

At the height of Victoria’s 2020 COVID-19 emergency, CraigCare Pascoe Vale was hit by an outbreak which, by October, had infected 94 residents and caused 16 deaths. In September, in the midst of the crisis, the regulator issued a notice of non-compliance at the home revealing failures which led to “undignified or disrespectful care”.

Another board director of Zenitas Healthcare, Jonathan Lim, was a director of CraigCare in March 2019 when the aged care regulator handed down a “serious risk decision” to its facility in Moonee Ponds for “[placing] the safety, health or wellbeing” of its clients at risk. He stepped down from CraigCare in February 2020, before the failures in Pascoe Vale and the WA homes.

Samantha Connor, president of People with Disabilities Australia, said the findings raised questions about the NDIA’s disregard for past care failures when awarding contracts. She added it’s “another example” of the agency’s “approach of privatised profit over people”.

“We should be taking a step back and examining how the government and their private industry partners are profiting from social programs meant to support disadvantaged Australians who could have been endangered in the process.”

In response to a series questions from The Citizen to Mr Hickey and Mr Lim regarding their involvement in CraigCare during the period when the regulator documented failures in the various homes, Mr Hickey responded: “We note your enquiry and wish to point out that all of the CraigCare homes currently have accreditation from the Aged Care Quality & Safety Commission (ACQSC).”

It remains unknown how much Zenitas Healthcare and any of the other seven companies contracted to produce NDIA independent assessments have received. The program was potentially worth $339 million, to be paid to the various providers on the basis of how many independent assessments they conducted. Questioned on how much had been paid, the NDIA did not respond.

After the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme Linda Reynolds declared the controversial independent assessments “dead” on 16 July, the NDIA skirted questions from the media about what would become of the three year contracts.

The independent assessments were proposed to replace the existing process, in which the needs of NDIS recipients are based on assessments provided by their own specialists. The axing of the scheme was a major relief to the disability community, which had been campaigning against the new model.

Questions around Zenitas Healthcare and its relationship with the NDIA were raised in Senate Estimates hearings into the proposed program in March. The contracts with Zenitas and its subsidiary Allied Care Group were also the focus of an ABC investigation. The chief executive of Zenitas Healthcare is a former head of the NDIA, Rob De Luca.

Mr Lim and Mr Hickey also had a further stake in CraigCare and Zenitas Healthcare’s financial performance, The Citizen has found.

Both worked for private equity firm Liverpool Partners which has investments in Zenitas Healthcare and CraigCare. Mr Lim is the managing partner and Mr Hickey is the operational adviser. They both list their roles with Liverpool Partners on Zenitas Healthcare’s webpage.

In addition to the serious risk decision handed down on the CraigCare Moonee Ponds home in March 2019, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission found a number of other failings in its report, including an insufficient number of qualified staff, dressings for client’s wounds had not been attended to at the appropriate time, and antipsychotic medication had been administered without protocols in place.

Both the Moonee Ponds home, and the Pascoe Vale facility that was the subject of documented failures during the COVID-19 outbreak last year, took measures to address the issues identified and are now recognised by the federal regulator as meeting compliance requirements.

But as recently as this year, other CraigCare aged care homes have also failed to comply with aged care standards.

In January, CraigCare AscotWaters in Perth was found to have not properly dealt with a client’s suicide attempt.

The regulator also found the aged care home had not “effectively managed” a client who had experienced constipation between five and seven days on two occasions.

In February, CraigCare Albany Western Australia was reported as non-compliant in their treatment of client’s wounds, and their use of psychotropic medications and physical restraint devices.

A spokesperson for Zenitas Healthcare said the company was aware that Mr Hickey was the the chair of CraigCare, adding that “Zenitas Healthcare was not in a position to comment upon matters relating to CraigCare” or “upon the services arrangement” between Allied Care Group and the NDIA.”