Medicare for mental health displaces counsellors
COUNSELLORS throughout Australia have experienced a significant decline in demand for services since the Government introduced funding for GPs to refer patients to psychologists. The Australian Counselling Association (ACA) says the trend indicates many people who could be treated by counsellors are being unnecessarily referred to more expensive specialists.
An ACA survey of more than 700 counsellors found more than 90 per cent have reported a drop in business since the Government introduced its Better Access to Mental Health scheme last November.
Counsellors have noticed a significant drop — in some cases 30 to 40 per cent — in demand for services,’’ says ACA president Philip Armstrong.
The Better Access to Mental Health scheme was introduced in November last year, making it easier for people with mental health disorders to claim a Medicare rebate for treatment by a psychologist.
The scheme’s popularity has far exceeded the Government’s expectations. Between November and May 31 this year Medicare spent $95 million on the scheme — well in excess of the $34 million allocated by Government to cover costs until June 30. Only $68 million was originally allocated for the program for the 2007-08 financial year.
GPs provided 48,000 consultations under the scheme in May and clinical psychologists provided more than 42,000, at a cost to Medicare of $110 each. Lesser-trained psychologists, who get a $75 rebate, conducted over 84,000 consultations.
Armstrong says many of the could be helped by a counsellor.
‘‘ Psychologists work with significant mental health issues such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, whereas counsellors can work with people suffering minor depression, anxiety and relationship problems,’’ he said.
‘‘ If a patient goes to his GP with a minor case of depression or anxiety, the GP then writes up a care plan and part of the care plan would be a referral to a counselling service and the only choice that they have is a psychologist — which is over-servicing.’’
Armstrong wants the rebate extended to registered counsellors, claiming that long waiting lists to see some psychologists place people who need immediate help at risk.
‘‘ Counsellors work in the preventative area with people who are starting to develop problems so that it doesn’t develop into a chronic disease.
‘‘ But the problem is that waiting lists for psychologists are so long. We’ve had a report from the Hunter that people are Continued inside — Page 19