Chester and Labor divided over psychology funding

More needed: Federal Member for Gippsland Darren Chester is urging the federal government to reinstate additional Medicare-subsidised psychology sessions. file photograph

Staff Writers

FEDERAL Member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, has condemned Labor’s decision to cut additional Medicare-subsidised psychology sessions.

Mr Chester said the previous federal government introduced 10 additional sessions to support Australians after a tumultuous couple of years.

“At a time of increasing need due to natural disasters and the pandemic, it’s extraordinary that Labor would cut people’s access to mental health professionals,” Mr Chester said.

“The previous federal government increased the Better Access Initiative from 10 sessions to 20 sessions to support the community facing the impacts of major traumatic events.

“As a region we are still dealing with the impacts of the Black Summer bushfires, coronavirus pandemic, storms, floods and now the increasing cost of living crisis.

“Access to mental health support is critical right now for all Gippslanders who are struggling, and this decision will see those needing support going without.

“I urge the Labor Government to reconsider and reinstate the additional 10 subsidised sessions so Gippslanders can access the psychological support they need.”

In response, Minister for Health, Mark Butler, said Better Access had failed people at a critical stage.

“The scheme is called Better Access, but the additional sessions made access worse,” he said.

“The number of people getting treatment fell, with people from lower income households, those living in regional or rural areas and aged care residents missing out.

“In light of these outcomes, the Australian government will not extend the temporary COVID measure beyond the former government’s expiration date of December 31. The government recognises the complexity and fragmentation of the mental health and suicide prevention system, and is committed to implementing ongoing system reforms to make a real difference to Australians’ mental health.

“In early 2023, the government will convene a forum of key experts and people with lived experience of mental illness to provide advice on how to improve Better Access, so all Australians have access to the same level of evidence-based care.

“The evaluation reinforces the importance, going forward, of making sure that there is more equitable access to this important program.

“The government’s goal is to develop and implement a more equitable and sustainable Better Access program and broader mental health system – one based on the evidence – and that ensures no one is left behind.

“The evaluation recommended making the additional 10 sessions available to those with complex mental health needs, however the evaluation was not conclusive around how this could be targeted.

“It noted a nuanced and stepped approached was needed, for this reason we’re promptly convening a forum to assess reform options with the sector.

“Many Better Access providers are currently at capacity, limiting access to supply.

“The Australian Government is committed to expanding the range and supply of psychological services for everyone, but this ultimately will involve building the mental health workforce and developing new digital and direct models of service.’

In the October 2022 Budget, the government provided an additional $114 million for mental health services, including $47.7 million to restore Medicare-subsidised online psychiatry consultations for rural and regional patients.

Priority populations and groups with unique needs, including people with complex comorbidities, can access multidisciplinary support without a referral, prior appointment or fees in Adult Mental Health Centres.

People with severe mental illness and in need of non-clinical, functional support may also be eligible for assistance through the Commonwealth Psychosocial Support Program.

The government also funds a range of services including Lifeline, Beyond Blue and Kids Helpline that provide free support 24/7 to people in crisis.

For any Gippslanders struggling with mental health issues, support is available via Lifeline on 13 11 14.