One in three Australians will be diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime and one in five will be diagnosed in the next 12 months. While the Federal Government plans to contribute $2.2 billion over the next five years to mental health services, most of this funding will come from cuts to Medicare rebates for GPs and from reducing the number of allied psychological consultations available to patients.
While the Delivering National Mental Health Reform announcements from the Government have been met with some positive initial reactions from groups like the Mental Health Council of Australia (MHCA), other industry bodies are not happy with the decision. The Australian Medical Association’s (AMA) president, Andrew Pesce stated in an AMA media release in May, “this Budget decision gives with one hand and takes away with the other”.
The Better Access to Mental Health Care Initiative will be most affected by the Budget reform. $580.5 million will be taken in total from Better Access, which encourages GPs to participate in “early intervention, assessment and management of patients with mental disorders” and provide referrals to psychologists and psychiatrists.
Funding cuts to this program mean that patients who visit their GPs seeking mental health guidance or referrals may have to be sent to another doctor or rely on not-for-profit care organisations. Patients requiring more consultations than the subsidised number will have to pay for these entirely.
The Government believes that this redirection of funding will allow better access to after hours primary care to relieve pressure on the public hospital system. The Government also believes that through the establishment of Medicare Locals, which the AMA has tagged as “a new level of bureaucracy”, there will be a less fragmented primary health care system. The establishment of a new Mental Health Commission has also been implemented to provide strategies and advice on mental health reform based on the performance of the system nationwide.
Some industry professionals have stated that the new Budget is simply a diversion of funds and that taking from one sector and giving to another won’t necessarily improve the care currently available to patients.
Some mental health patients believe the present Government services available fall short in providing an appropriate standard of care. One mental health patient, Calyn Van Wyk, said the care provided to her by the Government through both the Federal and State services was “not enough”, and she had to rely on family members during her rehabilitation after a number of psychotic episodes.
Where Government provided services like mental health plans and subsidised psychologist sessions fall short, non-government organisations, like Lifeline, bear a significant amount of weight. NGOs provide assistance for those unable to access GP or allied health care services.
The Government’s Budget reforms aim to provide better access to Government services for high-need groups. But many health care professionals, like Christine McAuliffe, former Gillard Government advisor, argue that GPs are the front line for the majority of mental health concerns in communities and that taking money away from them will negatively impact the standard of care available for many people.