Mental health experts push for telehealth services to be extended

With subsidised telehealth sessions due to expire in two weeks, mental health experts have urged the Federal Government to extend the service, arguing they have been a critical defence against the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, the Government set aside $669 million to expand Medicare subsidies for telehealth services, allowing health professionals like GPs and psychologists to consult with patients over video conferencing sites rather than face to face.

The scheme is due to end on September 30, but a spokesman for the Health Minister Greg Hunt said discussions were underway with peak groups to keep it going.

“To modernise our health system with the permanent implementation of whole of population telehealth, a decade earlier than anticipated,” he said.

“The Australian Government has made telehealth a key element of the fight against COVID-19 and has delivered 10 years of reform in 10 weeks.”

Community Mental Health Australia chief executive Bill Gye told a Senate committee examining the Government’s response to the pandemic, the program must continue.

“This is not the time to start reducing supports,” he said.

“Optimistically, we won’t be moving beyond this crisis for another year in my view with the anticipated earliest release of the vaccine.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) has called on the Government to announce its final decision swiftly, saying the uncertainty surrounding the decision was creating additional stress for those with mental illness.

“‘Confirmation, from the Government, of the continuation of telehealth for psychiatry is urgently needed to provide assurance to psychiatrists and consumers of continuity of care,” RANZCP President John Allan said.

Calls for Productivity Commission report to be released

Mr Gye also told the Senate committee the mental health sector was “wasting time” while waiting for the final Productivity Commission report into mental health to be released.

In 2018, the Government asked the commission to examine the effect of mental health on economic participation and productivity.

Its draft report released last year documented long-standing problems in the system, including under-investment in prevention programs, an over-reliance on clinical services, difficulties in accessing support and a lack of clarity between governments about their roles and responsibilities, leading to “persistent wasteful overlaps and yawning gaps in service provision”.

The final report was handed to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in June and he has 25 parliamentary sitting days to release it.

Mr Gye said it would be useful for many in the sector to have the report released promptly.

“We’re all slightly in a vacuum waiting for the report, in many ways treading water and wasting time until that comes,” he said.

Extending JobSeeker and JobKeeper also important, experts say

Mental health experts also warned against winding back the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments at the end of this month.

Angus Clelland, chief executive of Mental Health Victoria, said the schemes had been a vital part of the mental health pandemic response.

“If we look at JobKeeper and so on, in many ways, they’re some of the most important mental health programs, even though they’re not badged that way, because they target those key risk factors for individuals,” he said.

Lifeline chief executive John Brogden told the committee the mental health impacts of COVID-19 would exist long after the dangers of the virus itself.

“There is no certainty at the moment for many people and as they look forward into next year with JobKeeper coming off and also the guarantee of a recession and a significant one at that, as we walk into next year we expect the pressure on mental health services will significantly increase again and the pressure on suicide will grow,” he said.

“When the physical health pandemic ends, I believe we’ll be moving into a mental health pandemic that will last longer than what we’ve seen with COVID.”

The chief executive of the National Mental Health Commission Christine Morgan is due to provide evidence to the committee later today.