A Labor backbencher has criticised the government’s decision to halve the number of psychology appointments subsidised by Medicare.
From next year, patients will only be able to claim 10 subsidised sessions, following a review of the scheme.
Ten additional appointments were funded in the wake of the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, bringing the total number to 20, but the extra funding will not be renewed next year.
Labor MP Josh Burns has spoken out against the decision, calling for the government to reconsider.
«I believe that whilst there are real challenges in managing access to services, the answer is not to reduce support for those who need it,» he said in a statement.
«For those people who require more than 10 sessions of Medicare-funded mental health care, the extra sessions can be the difference between someone’s anxiety increasing or being effectively managed.»
Health Minister Mark Butler defended the decision, saying it would mean more access for more patients.
«This is a good program. I’ve been familiar with it for many, many years but its problem has always been one of equity,» he told ABC Radio on Wednesday.
«The evaluation found the lowest-income communities have more than twice the levels of mental distress as the highest-income communities but they get the lowest level of support and, under this program, that inequality was substantially worsened by these additional 10 sessions.»
The health minister said the halving of subsidised appointments was due to the program being demand driven.
«Every person who goes to their GP and has a mental health plan is entitled to 10 sessions,» Mr Butler said.
«What I hope is this will open up opportunities for people who are getting no support whatsoever to get that support.»
Talks are set to take place next year with stakeholders on how the scheme could be made more accessible to patients.
Mr Burns said he would continue to advocate for the extra sessions to be reinstated.
«They can be the difference between everyday functioning — participating with family, friends, at school or work — or not coping at all,» he said.
Patients already in the middle of the additional 10 sessions will still be able to access them over coming months.
Opposition health spokeswoman Anne Ruston has also called for the reinstatement of the extra visits.
«When will you listen to our own evaluation, the experts and your own backbench and reverse this decision?» she wrote on Twitter.
The impact of COVID-19 has led to spikes in mental distress among Australians, with Mr Butler saying young Australians have been more affected.
«The mental health impacts of these traumas on our community can last for years, they don’t switch off at the time that the flood recedes or the bushfire ends,» he said.
«Fewer people are getting in the door, that’s having the most dramatic impact evaluation found on poor communities and rural communities.»