Freeze funding cuts or patients lose out
THE federal government faces new pressure to freeze its $400 million funding cut to the Better Access mental health program after a crucial report warned patients may fall through gaps in the system because no alternative option is in place.
The government announced the changes – which hinge on slashing GP mental health rebates and the number of subsidised psychologist visits – as part of the federal budget this year, along with plans to redirect resources to the Access to Allied Psychological Services (ATAPS) program, which targets the disadvantaged.
The Senate inquiry was sparked when GPs and psychologists staunchly opposed the change, saying the cuts would drive up the cost for patients of the unexpectedly popular GP mental health plans while locking out patients who may not be eligible for ATAPS subsidised care.
After several delays due to the large number of submissions, the Senate committee delivered its report last week, the same day the changes took effect.
In the report, both Greens and Coalition senators questioned the ability of the yet to be operational Medicare Locals to adequately administer the ATAPS program along with any additional patient load as the result of the revised funding arrangements.
Committee chair Greens senator Rachel Siewert called on the government to “revise its scheduling… to ensure continuity of care”.
“There will almost certainly be a substantial period where Medicare Locals and GP divisions will not be fully engaged with the ATAPS program and consequently will not be able to deliver appropriate mental health care,” Ms Siewert wrote in the report.
Coalition mental health spokesperson Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said in imposing the Better Access cuts before setting out how ATAPS would “meet this demand” the government “failed to adequately assess the impact of those actions on… the patients”.
RACGP president Professor Claire Jackson said the government had still delivered no clear transition plan between Better Access and ATAPS and called for a meeting with the federal government and the health department before the end of the year.
“We need to look at the implications of cutting off the Better Access program at the knees before ATAPS is in any way, shape or form ready to pick up any of the slack,” Professor Jackson told MO.
“They are actually very different programs in their delivery and that has not really been worked through,” she said.
AMA president Dr Steve Hambleton said the Senate committee appeared to accept the health department’s claims that a GP mental health consult was similar to a regular GP visit – rather than a more complex GP management plan.
“It seems the [inquiry] has listened to the advice of bureaucrats, not doctors,” Dr Hambleton said.
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