I join Australia’s doctors in calling for the Albanese Government to urgently reinstate Medicare rebates for 70 Telehealth items that were cancelled on July 1.
Minister for Health Mark Butler’s backflip over the weekend on reinstating COVID payments, and announcement of a new temporary Medicare item to cover Telehealth appointments for people needing to access antiviral drugs, while welcome, does not go anywhere near far enough.
Minister Butler seems happy to continue the practice of funding longer video consulations with general practitioners. But he has discontinued rebates for longer telephone consultations with GPs, reportedly cancelling the rebate for telephone consultations on 70 initial and complex specialist items and specialist inpatient items.
These changes will inordinately impact older people, which is a real concern in the many population centres of my electorate of O’Connor that have older-than-average populations.
The regional City of Albany and Shire of Denmark, for instance, are retirement and semi-retirement meccas, with every five-year population cohort above the age of 55 having proportionally more people than for Western Australia and Australia as a whole.
The shires of Beverley, Narrogin, Katanning, Merredin, Plantagenet, Kojonup, Wagin and Wickepin are also among the many communities in my entirely regional electorate to have higher-than-average numbers of people in every age cohort above 55.
People in regional and remote (including Indigenous) communities are far more likely than those in Labor’s metropolitan heartland to have poor mobile phone reception and patchy or non-existent internet access. This means that in such communities many people find landlines to be the most effective, and in some cases the only, way to access Telehealth services.
These lower service levels are a regressive impost on older Australians who are most at risk from the COVID pandemic.
Compelling people to use a home computer or mobile phone videocall platform rather than a telephone is a one-size-fits-all approach to healthcare that does not reflect reality in diverse regional communities.
Minister Butler, who also holds the Aged Care portfolio, should listen to the nation’s doctors and reinstate the telephone service.
Several concerned constituents have contacted my office, including a cancer patient from Albany who had been receiving a Medicare rebate for phone consultations with his specialist in Perth, but has recently had that rebate cut. He has told me he will now have to travel to Perth to see his specialist for an $80 revisit in order to keep his referral current.
Older Australians and people in regional and remote Australia should not be treated like this.
Since the former Coalition Government introduced Telehealth in March 2020, 100 million new services have been provided to more than 17 million people.
One of the very few positives to arise from the pandemic has been how Telehealth technology has improved the way we access healthcare, particularly in regional and remote Australia.
Yet many Telehealth services have been taken away right at the time when we’re seeing a very dangerous spike in new Omicron variants. This is on the back of the recent revelation that concession card holders will lose access to free rapid antigen tests by the end of July.
Instead of winding Telehealth back, we should look to see where there are real, ongoing benefits, especially in regional and remote areas where it can be difficult to get a face-to-face consultation.
Telehealth should be tailored to the unique needs of individual regions. Winding back rebates in the middle of a pandemic is taking us back to the dark ages.
That’s why I have joined the Australian Medical Association and Royal Australian College of General Practitioners in writing to Minister Butler to challenge him on this issue.
Elderly, geographically isolated and technologically challenged people deserve nothing less than retention of the full suite of tailored Telehealth services.
Media contact: Chris Thomson | 9842 2777 | firstname.lastname@example.org