General News Politics — 11 May 2012
The hidden flaws in Labor’s Mental Health Plan

Last year the Federal Government was lauded for an unprecedented $1.5 billion investment in Australia’s frail mental health system; finally, a bag full of cash to solve one of the country’s great challenges.

But the money had to come from somewhere, and a number of “first line of defence” programs were cut to fund services for more extreme cases.

The most alarming cut was to the Better Access counselling program, which aims to provide better access to mental health practitioners through Medicare.

The goal is to stop Australians falling through the cracks by getting them face-to-face with a mental health practitioners early.

The Alliance for Better Access says the 2010/11 Budget triggered “widespread alarm” that the funding changes were simply “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.

Medicare previously provided anyone access to 18 subsidised sessions with a qualified counsellor. In November, that was slashed to 10.

That’s less than one session per month while evidence-based policy dictates the bare minimum for people with even mild conditions is 15 to 20 sessions.

Ben Mullings, a Western Australia-based mental health counsellor, says the cuts also send a disturbing message to patients – you’re on the clock.

“The implication (is) that if you need more than 10 sessions, patients are essentially categorised as having something exceptional or unusual wrong with them,” Mullings told news.com.au.

“Most people need around 20 sessions, even for moderate conditions. The implication that there’s something wrong with you if you need more than 10, it’s concerning and stigmatising.

“There’s a pressure to get better quickly. We don’t think that’s very helpful.”

Federal Minister for Health and Ageing Mark Butler argues the changes to the Better Access program will actually balance out the broader mental healthcare system.

“What the Government is doing is partially redirecting funding from Better Access to services for some of the most disadvantaged people in our community,” Mr Butler said. “Every dollar will be re-invested into new mental health services targeting these groups.

“The Government acknowledges that reducing the number of allied mental health services for which people can receive a Medicare rebate has caused some concern and has listened to these concerns.”

He said 87 per cent of Better Access users received between one and 10 allied mental health services a year, and would therefore be unaffected by the change to a maximum of 10 individual sessions and ten group sessions a year.

As first appeared on news.com.au, 11 May 2012

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