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Doubt cast over Better Access ‘success story’
A REPORT trumpeting the success of the $1 billion-plus Better Access mental health program has failed to win over many experts, despite a rise in the number of Australians accessing psychological care.
Evaluation of the program shows more than two million Australians have received Better Access services since it started in late 2006.
“This groundbreaking program has done more than meet initial expectations – it is now one of the success stories in mental health,” Australian Psychological Society executive director Professor Lyn Littlelfield said.
The report, released last week, includes modelling by the Department of Health and Ageing showing the number of people with a mental health disorder treated annually rose from 37% in 2006–07 to 46% in 2009–10.
However, the evaluation, conducted by researchers from the University of Melbourne and University of Queensland, included an admission that the 95% confidence interval indicated “considerable uncertainty” around the estimates (for more detail see MO online).
Professor Ian Hickie, executive director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute, Sydney, said the increase did not represent value for money.
“They say half a million people more are getting services now than before,” he said.
“At a cost of $1.5 billion… that’s over $3000 per head.”
Gavin Andrews, professor of psychiatry at the University of NSW, who performed cost modelling for the analysis, said 46% of people with a mental illness treated was a good outcome.
“It’s a lot of money, but it doesn’t smell of waste, and I certainly thought it would,” he said.
The evaluation showed the Better Access program was failing disadvantaged groups, experts said.
People under the age of 14 were four times less likely to use Better Access services than those aged 35–44, and people living in remote areas were 2.5 times less likely to access care than those in capital cities.
“If you are young, in a poorly serviced region and you’ve got no money, you’re doing very poorly,” Professor Hickie said.
RACGP mental health spokesperson Dr Caroline Johnson said the Federal Government needed to be proactive about addressing equity of access by not “putting all its eggs in one basket”.
“The ATAPS program and the mental health nursing practice program also need to be considered as to whether they are mopping up or catching those gaps,” she said.
Professor Hickie said the Government could no longer delay mental health reform.
“A large amount of money and workforce, largely tied up in registered psychology and to some degree general practice, needs to go under the ATAPS-like framework,” he said.