$110m anorexia lifeline
PATIENTS with crippling eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binging will be eligible for a landmark Medicare subsidy to help fight the deadly mental illness.
With a million sufferers nationwide — some as young as seven — the federal government will give chronic patients access to 60 taxpayer-funded medical appointments from November next year.
The dedicated Medicare item, to be listed as “eating disorders”, will cost $110.7 million over four years and include 40 psychological and 20 dietetic services annually. The changes, recommended by the Eating Disor- ders Working Group of the Medicare Benefits Schedule Review Taskforce, are expected to benefit about 30,000 people a year.
With anorexia the deadliest mental health condition in Australia, private treatment can cost patients up to $90,000 a year.
For patients to be eligible for the new subsidy, their GP and mental health practitioner need to agree they have a severe eating disorder. A treatment plan will then be drawn up and reviewed halfway through.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said devastating eating disorders were “one of many nightmares parents have for their children”.
“It can strike and tear apart any home as it tries to rob the life and spirit of those dear ones afflicted,” Mr Morrison said. “It is only right that we recognise these debilitating conditions within our Medicare system.”
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the new Medicare item would help patients tackle the problem before they needed hospitalisation.
“By the time somebody is admitted to hospital that means they have become extremely severe, both physically and mentally,” he said. “This is a condition, even more so than many of the other mental health conditions, that requires ongoing and continuous psychological support until such time as the person is able to make progress.
“In many cases it can go on for years and so if there is earlier stronger support there is a much better chance of containing it to the mild level.”
Under current Medicare arrangements, eating disorders are covered by general mental health items, with patients eligible for only 10 psychological and five dietetic services.
Christine Morgan, chief executive of leading eating disorder support group the Butterfly Foundation, said the new Medicare subsidy would be a “seismic shift ... I really do see this as an historical event,” she said. “I know that sounds quite dramatic but for those that have been, for so many years, fighting to get these illnesses recognised, it’s really significant.
“We still have too many people who think that eating disorders are just a lifestyle choice.”
In the past 10 years, Sydney writer Fiona Wright has spent $75,000 treating her eating disorder.
“I would like to see it go even further, but it’s thrilling to hear things are changing,” Ms Wright, 35, said. “That sort of access to treatment would have made my life a lot easier.”
She said the financial stress had forced many people with eating disorders to borrow money for medical help. “I’m very fortunate I was able to work. Many more people have no option but to step away from treatment.”
ANYONE NEEDING SUPPORT FOR EATING DISORDERS CAN CONTACT THE BUTTERFLY NATIONAL HELPLINE ON 1800 334 673.