Vital program in jeopardy

A FREEZE on funding to a key mental health program could threaten its expansion in the Latrobe Valley.

The Australian College of Mental Health Nurses has accused the Federal Government of delivering an “unconscionable freeze” on funding to the Mental Health Nurse Incentive Program in its 2012-13 budget.

It is understood there are about 10 mental health nurses currently delivering the MHNIP across Gippsland, including several with Headspace and a number within the Central West Gippsland Division of General Practice.

While a CWGDGP spokesperson acknowledged the college’s concerns, she told The Express last week the potential local impact of the funding decision was so far unknown as it had not yet received formal notification from the government.

However, college chief executive Adjunct Associate Professor Kim Ryan, said the budget allocated just $17 million in additional funding to the MHNIP, which meant “no new nurses and no new organisations will be able to deliver vital services to thousands of people with complex and serious mental illness.”

“Through this program people with severe and persistent mental illness receive specialist nursing support and care coordination through the Medicare system,” she said.

“The services are provided in a range of settings, including patients’ homes or clinics, at little cost to the patient.

“This program is about supporting people with complex conditions.

“Mental health nurses working under MHNIP keep people connected and stop them from falling through the gaps of the health system.”

Another college spokesperson, Anne Buck, told The Express the freeze on funding meant the program, which had been demand-driven to date and had a history of growth, would not need to be capped.

Ms Buck said the MHNIP began in 2007 as part of a Council of Australian Governments funding package.

“It took a few years to take off but once GPs became aware of it and divisions got on board, it grew exponentially over the past two to three years,” she said.

Ms Buck said sessions of care provided under the MHNIP allowed workers to “spend time doing whatever (the client) needs” to improve their day to day lives.

“This program helps people who have been in and out of hospitals through their adult lives… now they are being helped in their own environment and it is about catching them before they get to a point where things have escalated and intervening earlier to help keep them stable,” she said.

Ms Buck said when the MHNIP was first introduced funding forecasts expected the annual commitment required would be about $72 million by this year.

The funding freeze prompted college concerns about the “long-term impact” on job security.

Ms Buck said restrictions on how the program operated locally “puts it at risk” and might force mental health nurses to reassess “their pathways”.