Telehealth for psychologists must be available to all Australians Gaps in COVID-19 health plan put mental wellbeing at risk
Australia, 24 March 2020: Psychologists around the country are calling for access to telehealth services for all Australian individuals and psychologists, as greater degrees of isolation and levels of anxiety place mental health under strain.
While the recently announced new COVID-19 telehealth Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) item numbers were welcomed, the Australian Association of Psychologists (AAPi), the peak body for psychologists in the country, highlights that there are significant gaps in the plan, which will shut out many patients from accessing vital mental health support from psychologists at a time when Australians need them most.
As it is expected that further telehealth provisions will be announced by the end of this week by the Minister for Health, AAPi is urging the Minister to make sure these provisions make mental health care available to all, including those who are following the government’s request to stay home.
Tegan Carrison, Executive Director of AAPi explains, “The current plan outlines highly stringent criteria to qualify patients to access Medicare bulk billed telehealth sessions, as well as narrow parameters to define which psychologists can offer telehealth. For example, psychologists are permitted to provide telehealth services if they are immunocompromised or over the age of 70, but not if they are a carer of an elderly parent or have a spouse or child who is high risk.”
Removing barriers to the access and provision of mental health services, such as the need for a mental health care plan and an increase in the number of allowable sessions covered through Medicare, will enable individuals to see psychologists as they self-isolate or deal with reduced social contact, which can create or exacerbate mental ill-health.
“Given that we are seeing high levels of stress and anxiety, we urge the Health Ministry to remove more barriers and to ensure individuals and our communities can access support during this incredibly difficult time. The government cannot discriminate in who is allowed access to mental health,” says Carrison, adding that current individuals need an existing GP referral and a mental health care plan to see a psychologist.
“An ideal solution would be setting up telehealth items similar to our response to the bushfires. These bushfire recovery items included 10 sessions on top of any current mental health care plan that could be
accessed by anyone affected by the bushfires with no GP referral required, and they could be accessed via telehealth or in person,” explains Carrison.
“We are also advocating for all psychologists to be able to provide sessions under the one, higher Medicare tier. The system currently discriminates by type of psychologist. And all current Medicare items that can be provided by psychologists must be available by telehealth as soon as possible. For example, eating disorder item numbers must be included as a matter of urgency.
With psychologists in Australia reporting as many as 70% of appointments being cancelled, Carrison emphasises that it is very crucial that mental health patients continue to see their psychologist. Even in a situation where a patient or individual cannot attend in person, they should actively seek out alternatives available, such as discussing with their psychologist the need for virtual sessions.
Anne Marie Collins, AAPi president and registered psychologist says, “Staying mentally well can be more challenging when we are isolated. Please speak to a psychologist if you notice your mood has changed or you are struggling with the restrictions of needing to be at home.
“Sometimes, we feel survivor’s guilt for reaching out for support when we see other people suffering more extreme distress. Do not let that stop you from getting the early help you might need to prevent more serious mental health effects.”
Carrison stresses, “We want to make sure that everyone in our community can get support and assistance when needed. We believe the increased telehealth access for all Australians and all psychologists will make a significant difference to our mental health, as we fight one of our biggest health wars and greatest societal disruption as a nation.
“Additionally, we are advocating for psychologists to be able to charge their usual fees whilst providing telehealth, and for clients to be able to claim the Medicare rebate as we understand that bulk billing is not a financially viable option to all psychologists. Society needs psychologists to be financially viable so they can continue helping people in critical ways.”
About Australian Association of Psychologists Inc (AAPi):
The AAPi is a not-for-profit peak body for psychologists that aims to preserve the rich diversity of psychological practice in Australia. Formed in 2010 by a group of passionate grassroots psychologists, the AAPi’s primary goal is to address inequality in the profession and represent all psychologists and their clients equally to government and funding bodies. Its primary mission is to lobby for equitable access for the Australian public to professional psychological services funded under the current Medicare Better Access Scheme.
About Tegan Carrison, Executive Director, AAPi:
Tegan has spent over 15 years in public health promotion and is passionate about advocating for the rights of health care professionals and improving access for the community. After studying Nutrition and Health Promotion at Deakin University, Tegan went on to become an experienced clinical educator, supervisor, and mentor, including starting a student-led interprofessional clinic with the University of Queensland's not-for-profit UQ Health Care. Tegan also brings a wealth of experience in business management, administration and human resource management. She is passionate and dedicated to improving access to mental health services and creating the leading members association for psychologists in Australia.