Federal health minister Mark Butler is facing a rebellion from mental health experts, who want his government to reinstate cheaper ‘life-saving’ psychology sessions.
the main points:
- Health professionals warn psychology clients not to skip sessions or consider stopping care after government cuts
- Last month, the federal government halved the number of cheaper psychology sessions available to people
- Health professionals warn that the cuts will lead to more people needing acute care
Several groups representing psychologists, emergency service workers, and allied health professionals have written a letter to Mark Butler asking him to restore additional mental health support, or risk patients moving from psychology practices to already overburdened emergency departments.
In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Morrison government announced a $100 million commitment to double the number of Medicare-supported mental health sessions available to patients each year, from 10 to 20.
Late last year, the new Labor government announced that its so-called Better Access Initiative would return to 10 subsidized sessions, arguing that an independent report from the University of Melbourne found the scheme did not serve all Australians equally, and that those from less than Socio-economic backgrounds and regional areas were missing.
However, the report also stated that overall, “evidence from the evaluation suggests that the additional 10 sessions should continue to be made available, and should target those with more complex mental health needs.”
A message warning that cuts put patients at risk of harm
In a letter to the minister, the groups – including the Australian Psychological Society, the Rural Health Alliance, the Victorian Ambulance Federation and the Australian Federal Police Association – argue the decision puts “patients at risk of preventable harm or loss of life” and “jeopardizes the safety of service staff”. Emergency and healthcare professionals dealing with increased acceptance of mental health services.
“The Government’s decision to halve this program will reduce the amount and quality of mental health care available to tens of thousands of Australians and create a significant risk that patients who are abused or who have stopped treatment will move on from already psychopathic and disordered practices. GP clinics and emergency departments ‘, as stated in the letter.
Australian Psychological Society (APS) President Catriona Davis-McCabe said reinstating the program was vital.
“Cutting off that service for everyone is a really dangerous experience, especially when it’s replaced with nothing,” she said.
“This new year is only a few weeks away and our patients and psychologists are already telling us they don’t know what they are going to do.
“They ration their care. They also talk about stopping treatment altogether.”
Minister defends the decision, calling the scheme unfair
From its inception, Medicare-supported additional psychological sessions have been controversial, criticized for being designed specifically for those who could afford co-payments or who lived in areas where psychologists were available.
There have been consistent calls for more money directed at what is often called the “missing middle”: people are often too ill to be treated by a primary health practitioner such as a GP, but not considered sick enough to be admitted to a mental health unit .
Butler cited the “missing middle” this week when he defended the decision to cut additional mental health sessions, arguing that the system is not designed for people with more complex needs.
“People in the areas of greatest need – the highest level of mental distress – receive far fewer services than other areas of society,” he said Monday.
“The level of access, particularly the level of equity, was made worse by the 10 extra sessions.
“I’m very clear that the people who had access to those 10 extra sessions appreciated them and benefited from them. But the problem is that it kept a lot of people from getting any support at all.”
However, Dr. Davis McCabe said cutting down on supported psychology sessions will not help those who have already lost support.
“We acknowledge that better access needs to be improved in some areas, particularly when we’re talking about the missing middle,” she said.
But the answer is not to cut off services to everyone.
“What we need to do is address workforce psychology. Without addressing the underlying issues of the workforce, we will continue to see service gaps for people in lower socioeconomic groups.” [groups] And rural and remote areas, and that’s totally unacceptable, because your zip code should never determine your mental health.”
On Monday, the Minister for Health will hold a roundtable with mental health experts to assess the recommendations of the University of Melbourne report and look at equitable access for vulnerable and marginalized Australians.