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ABC News
ABC News
political reporter Stephanie Dalzell

Government criticised for cutting cheaper mental health sessions despite review saying they should continue

The federal government is under fire for halving access to cheaper psychology sessions despite an independent review recommending the scheme continue.

In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Morrison government doubled the number of Medicare-funded mental health sessions available to patients each year from 10 to 20.

However the government on Monday announced that from next year, the so-called "Better Access Initiative" would revert to 10 subsidised sessions

Defending the decision, Health Minister Mark Butler pointed to an independent evaluation by the University of Melbourne, commissioned by the government, which found the program was not serving all Australians equally, and that those from lower-socio economic backgrounds and regional areas were missing out.

But the same report also stated that on balance, "the evidence from the evaluation suggests that the additional 10 sessions should continue to be made available and should be targeted towards those with more complex mental health needs."

Australian Psychological Society (APS) president Catriona Davis-McCabe said given that finding, it was unclear why the government was suspending the scheme.

"By cutting to 10 sessions, we're creating a revolving door of mental health issues that are half-treated and going to be returning six months later, with probably much worsening symptoms," she said.

"So really I think psychologists are left with a real ethical dilemma, because we're practising within a system that we're unable to provide evidence-based care within."

Dr Davis-McCabe said in the absence of the additional funding, many Australians would defer or abandon care.

"It has been life-saving for so many patients," she said.

"So they are going to be left deciding, do I need to space my sessions out? Can I afford to pay for ongoing sessions?

"And it's really difficult for them because they're then having to choose whether they do or they don't deal with their mental health issues."

Decision brings 'added anxiety'

One of those Australians is Blue Mountains mother Lindsay, who has relied heavily on additional Medicare-funded psychology sessions over the past two years.

Her 20-year-old daughter has severe OCD and anxiety, and she told the ABC the extra federal funding had meant they could access consistent support.

"It's made a huge difference because we haven't had to worry about whether we can afford these extra sessions if we need them, and it just gives you a sense of security," she said.

Lindsay said the government's decision meant she and her daughter would have to consider spreading visits to the psychologist out over the year.

"It just means added anxiety mostly, and worrying about being able to … afford the extra sessions, because, you know, a year is a long time — it's 52 weeks — and 10 sessions is really nothing in those 52 weeks," she said.

"I actually find it quite soul destroying. I was really hoping that they would rethink their decision to do that, because it's just so important to people that have the need for these sessions."

The government said it would convene a forum of experts and people with lived experience of mental illness early next year to assess the recommendations of the University of Melbourne report.

The forum will also look at equitable access for vulnerable and marginalised Australians.

However, Shadow Health Minister Anne Ruston questioned why the scheme would not be continued until that forum is held.

"It does seem a little like you're putting the cart before the horse," she said.

"Why not wait for the outcomes of this forum to better understand what are going to be the really important and targeted areas that we need to continue this really important psychological support for Australians, before you just rip the supports out of the community?"

In a statement Mr Butler said the University of Melbourne report had provided the government the opportunity to address a variety of concerns to ensure all Australians could get the mental health care and support they needed.

"The report shows Better Access is failing some Australians," he said.

"Gap fees and wait times make it inaccessible and unaffordable for too many.

"The most disadvantaged Australians — those among us with the greatest need — have the least access to mental health services."

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