‘The clock has run out’: Fed Govt axes specialist telehealth funding

By Geir O'Rourke

30 Jun 2022

The AMA has accused the Federal Government of failing an early test of its pandemic response by failing to extend Medicare phone items for specialists and GPs.

It follows a last-ditch attempt by doctor groups to convince the Federal Government to reconsider the plan to remove all but one specialist phone consultation item from the MBS.

As of Friday, the only phone item remaining for consultant physicians will cover “minor attendances”, with a rebate of $38.60.

The decision comes after Minister for Health Mark Butler last week promised to reconsider the cuts, which had already been postponed in January due to rising COVID-19 case numbers.

“The Albanese Government has sought advice about options to extend these temporary Medicare items beyond 30 June,” he told the limbic.

“This consideration includes compliance measures related to telehealth.”

On Thursday, the limbic contacted Mr Butler’s office to ask what advice he received but did not hear back before deadline.

AMA president Dr Omar Khorshid said vulnerable patients would be put at risk.

“This decision means telephone access to doctors will be significantly limited and this will hit vulnerable patients hardest, including those who do not have access to high bandwidth internet and those who can’t operate the necessary IT systems,” he said.

The decision was particularly harmful given the seasonally increased risks of COVID-19 and influenza transmission, Dr Khorshid said.

“This means that older patients, those with chronic health conditions including cancers and those who are immune suppressed will have less access to care from tomorrow and may be put at increased risk of contracting COVID if they now have to attend their doctors appointment face to face.”

“Each day thousands of Australians are required to self-isolate because of a COVID-19 infection and as a close contact. Many of these people will not be able to continue to access medical care when they need it.”

Specialists pleas ignored

Last week the Medical Oncology Group of Australia called on the government to retain  telehealth rebate for all phone consults for at least 12-18 months, if not permanently reinstated.

“Specialists, and the people they care for, may prefer to use video technology, or have the consultation in person but too often this is not possible nor safe for the patient. All patients must continue to have a suitable, alternative option available,” it said in a communique released on 23 June.

“As a priority, Australians who are immunocompromised should not be forced to put their health at greater risk by attending medical settings and potentially be exposed to COVID-19 or influenza. Equally, making patients, and their carers, drive or even fly long distances, stay overnight, away from their homes also places greater financial stress on these patients who are already struggling with out-of-pocket costs.”

The ability to deliver remote care allows specialists, who are unwell themselves with COVID-19 or other respiratory infections, to work from home without endangering their patients and other staff,” it added.

RACP president Dr Jacqueline Small said there was still time for the government to reconsider.

“We’re approaching the deadline, but there’s still time for the government to make a positive change at the eleventh hour,” she said.

“This is about keeping people in our communities connected to medical services where they might face barriers in accessing healthcare. Telehealth helped remove these barriers and gain access to care at a level that wasn’t easily achievable without it.”

Dr Khorshid added: “The Labor Party criticised the former government’s pandemic response over the past two years and in not extending access to COVID telehealth settings it must now face the same criticism.”

“Although the Government has acknowledged the need for ongoing support of the hospital sector with an extension of COVID-19 hospital funding, it has failed to take a consistent approach when it comes to patients accessing care from their GP or specialist.”

MBS telehealth changes for consultant physician attendances (items scheduled for removal shaded in green)

Service Face-to-face item Video item Telephone item
Initial attendance 110 91824 91834
Subsequent attendance 116 91825 91835
Minor attendance 119 91826 91836
Complex initial assessment (at least 45 minutes) 132 92422  92431
Complex subsequent assessment (at least 20 minutes) 133 92423 92432

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