Extend Medicare Allied Health Telehealth items indefinitely

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COVID has accelerated changes in our efficiency and innovation as a society. One of these has been the ability to access allied health treatment* via Telehealth with Medicare rebate (since March 2020). This has enabled increased accessibility for allied health treatment for people at this extraordinary time in history. It has also protected practitioners from contracting COVID whilst completing their normal work duties. Five important reasons why Medicare Telehealth items should be extended indefinitely...

1. Telehealth enables increased accessibility of treatment

Access to healthcare is a fundamental human right. However historically allied health treatment has required patients to physically visit a practitioners office to access a Medicare rebate. Consequently treatment has not been available to all Australians as there are many legitimate reasons why a person may have not been able to attend a practitioners office. These include the tyranny of distance and geographical barriers, mobility issues experienced by individuals, and practical barriers such as overwhelmed new mums or people with severe anxiety or depression who experience difficulty leaving the house. An additional barrier now exists with COVID, which is that for people who have compromised immunity or who care for other vulnerable individuals. For these people, leaving the house may be tantamount to a death sentence. Further, in terms of the stretched and limited capacity of most practitioners currently, Telehealth enables flexible service delivery, including temporary scaling up beyond office space limitations to service long wait lists. Enabling ongoing access to Medicare rebates for Telehealth services is paramount for the continuation of care for all of these people who will not have access if these changes end.

2. Telehealth enables excellent treatment outcomes

There is no clinical reason for ceasing access to Telehealth. Research suggests that in cases where Telehealth is clinically indicated, treatment outcomes are excellent. Further, utilising Telehealth enables greater access to treatment including earlier intervention, access to niche services that are not geographically close and access to practitioners in other locations when access to practitioners in a particular region is saturated, such as during a lockdown period. These also improve public health and treatment outcomes. We know that public mental health will be a long term casualty of COVID. Enabling ongoing and unrestricted access to Medicare rebatable treatment via Telehealth will enable positive treatment outcomes to continue.

3. Continuing Telehealth reduces costs for Medicare 

Enabling these items to continue will not add costs to Medicare. Indeed, reliable access to Medicare rebatable sessions via Telehealth will improve access to allied health treatment, decreasing psychological conditions and improving societal wellbeing thus reducing the burden on the public health system. It will also reduce suicide rates and enable our population to be more resilient during consequences of COVID such as unemployment and recession. This will have a direct impact on Australia’s recovery as a nation.

4. Telehealth protects practitioners from contracting COVID

Face to face treatment increases the risk of developing COVID. It typically occurs in a small, enclosed room for 50 minutes. Physical distancing may be impossible and wearing face masks may not protect against the transmission of COVID as a result. Enabling Telehealth items for an extended period of time enables allied health practices to be agile and autonomous in their implementation of their COVID Safe Plans. This is particularly important as it remains unclear how many months or years Australia will be managing cases of COVID. 

5. Extending Telehealth indefinitely enables continuation of care

The current COVID items discussed in detail above are due to expire on 30 September 2020, less than one month away. Confirmation about whether these will continue to be available remains unclear. If they expire on 30 September there are many people who will be displaced from treatment. Extending these items means some level of continuity of care can continue.

When considering the extension of Telehealth items I urge you to reflect on the above and enable access indefinitely.

Finally, I urge you to consider including group work as part of these items, which have been available under the Better Access scheme. 

*This petition originally focused on access to psychological treatment for Psychologists, however has been expanded to be inclusive of all allied health practitioners and services that are impacted