Medicare-funded telehealth options to become permanent

If there has been one good thing to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been the changes it has brought about to the way Australians access health services.

Older Australians have embraced the idea of telehealth consultations, as has the rest of the community, and the government on Monday announced it would make the Medicare-funding of these appointments permanent.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), which has been advocating for Medicare funding of telehealth options to become permanent, welcomed the announcement by health minister Greg Hunt.

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RACGP president Dr Karen Price said making telehealth permanent was a big step forward for Australia’s healthcare system

“This is a significant step forward for general practice and our entire health system. The RACGP has been working hard engaging with government to make this happen, because we know the value of telehealth for patient care,” she said.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic telehealth has proven to be a valuable complement to face-to-face care, it increased access to care for patients in need and no doubt saved lives.

“I know patients and GPs alike will be glad and relieved to hear that these services will remain and will continue to support access to care for people across Australia.”

Read: GPs call for Medicare revamp

Last year, a Global Centre for Modern Ageing (GCMA) survey of 1200 Australians found that telehealth, whether accessed by phone or online, has worked well, with more than 60 per cent of people aged over 60 surveyed nationally saying they were willing to use telehealth in the future.

“Older Australians like telehealth for its convenience, reduced travel and ability to be conducted at home,” said GCMA chief executive Julianne Parkinson.

Nearly half (49 per cent) of Australians aged over 60 who used telehealth during the pandemic said they were likely to use telehealth after the pandemic.

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Mr Hunt said the government would provide $106 million over four years to support permanent telehealth services.

“Telehealth has been transformational to Australia’s universal healthcare and has played a critical role in ensuring the continuity of care for hundreds of thousands of Australian patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, protecting the health of patients and health professionals,” Mr Hunt said. “It offers greater flexibility to healthcare as part of universal Medicare.

“Since early March 2020, more than 86.3 million COVID-19 MBS telehealth services have been delivered to 16.1 million patients, with $4.4 billion in Medicare benefits paid. More than 89,000 providers have used telehealth services.”

As part of Monday’s announcement, Mr Hunt also announced $41.2 million in funding to deliver better health services in regional and rural Australia.

Part of that funding includes providing incentives for eligible doctors and nurses to practise in rural and regional areas, by remitting all or part of their Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) debt.

“This initiative allows for the suspension of indexation on HELP debts for eligible doctors and nurse practitioners while they are residing in and completing eligible work in a rural, remote or very remote area,” Mr Hunt said.

“Incentivising doctors and nurse practitioners to live and work outside of metropolitan areas can help improve access to quality healthcare for local communities.

“The experience can also provide insights for early career healthcare professionals into rural health, and inspire a passion to continue working in rural and regional areas.”

Dr Price said the investment to deliver better health services in regional and rural Australia was sorely needed.

“Addressing Australia’s rural and remote GP workforce deficit is a top priority for the RACGP – everyone deserves access to high-quality primary care regardless of their postcode,” Dr Price said.

“I also welcome the government acting on our proposal to attract doctors and nurse practitioners to rural and remote Australia by waiving all or part of their Higher Education Loan Program debt.

“Starting 1 January 2022, the government will eliminate an eligible individual’s remaining HELP debt after they’ve worked a rural or remote practice for a certain period.

“The rural GP workforce shortage is a complex problem. However, the research shows that incentivising GPs in training to live and work outside of metropolitan areas can help improve access to high quality care for communities in need. And GPs who do train in rural or remote areas are far more likely to remain living and working there, after seeing all the opportunities and benefits of the career and lifestyle.”

Have you used telehealth services during the pandemic? How did you find the experience? Are you happy that these services will now be permanently funded by Medicare? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Ben

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