A recent case in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) has exposed the National Disability Insurance Agency’s faulty policy on psychiatric assistance animals.
Assistance dogs provide cost-effective, clinically proven support to people with a broad range of mental health conditions, yet the NDIA refuses to fund them unless extremely narrow criteria are met.
Under current guidelines, funding is excluded unless a person’s only psychological diagnosis is ’long term but stable Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ (PTSD). Most people with PTSD have additional mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, making them ineligible.
The narrow criteria are inconsistent with the NDIS Act which says people must be funded for supports that are reasonable and necessary.
Sally* was refused funding for an assistance dog despite extensive medical evidence supporting her request. Sally has multiple complex mental health conditions, including PTSD, as a result of severe and prolonged physical, emotional and sexual abuse while she was a child and young adult.
‘My medical team explained how an assistance dog can help me regulate my emotions, cope with crowds and new environments, and actively help in periods of dissociation’, said Sally. ‘My other option was a revolving door of 24/7 human carers, which is much more expensive and would mean I would have to regularly let strangers into my home. This invasion of privacy is the exact opposite of what I need to feel safe and to function.’
Sally adopted Toby, a kelpie-cross puppy, on advice from her medical team in 2019 and accessed professional training through mindDog Australia to have him accredited as a psychiatric assistance dog. Her request for NDIS funding to pay for his training was refused.
Sally appealed the decision to the AAT. With PIAC’s support, she successfully settled with the NDIA – but only after a stressful eighteen-month battle. The settlement agreement includes funding for Toby’s training and maintenance, as well as back payment of costs.
‘Having Toby in my life helps me feel safe and in control,’ said Sally. ‘I no longer have nightmares or lose hours from dissociating. I’m confident to catch public transport and do my own shopping. I’ve also been able to get and maintain a part-time job, which lets me live independently in a safe home.’
‘Going to the AAT was stressful and overwhelming. Although the AAT says its processes are accessible to people with disability, that was certainly not my experience.’
‘I only got this outcome because I was fortunate to have legal representation. People shouldn’t have to battle the NDIA like this to get the reasonable and necessary supports they need.’
After Sally’s case was settled, PIAC raised concerns directly with the NDIA and asked for the guidelines to be changed, to reflect that funding for a psychiatric assistance dog must be provided if there is evidence it is reasonable and necessary in the individual circumstances. The NDIA refused.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
PIAC Senior Solicitor, Lucy Geddes:
‘Assistance animals have been shown to be life changing for people with complex psychiatric disabilities.’
‘The NDIA’s policy of limiting funding to people with a very specific diagnosis is inconsistent with international best practice and clinical evidence.’
‘Unless the Guideline is changed, people who would receive undeniable benefits from an assistance animal and can show it is a reasonable and necessary support will still be forced into a stressful and lengthy appeal to the AAT to get funding.’
Emerging clinical evidence shows assistance animals can provide effective support, as well as value for money. A2019 study of 200 people with mental health disorders who had assistance animals found that nearly half (46%) of participants said that their use of psychiatric and other health services had decreased.
Media contact: PIAC Media and Communications Manager, Danielle Buhagiar: 0478 739 280.