Medicare Cuts Called Premature as Telehealth Specialist Services Cut

Cuts to vital health services have been called “completely premature” as Australia battles a rising number of Covid cases and a deadly flu season.

The Australian government has been criticized for prematurely reducing access to telemedicine consultations while cases of Covid and influenza are still widespread in the community.

The cuts, effective June 30, mean the end of more than 70 telemedicine consultations, including 33 complex specialty questions, 40 specialized inpatient questions, and GP consultations that exceed 20 minutes.

Health Minister Mark Butler said that six of the seven telemedicine consultations will not be affected by the changes and short telemedicine consultations with general practitioners (GPs) will continue to be available.

For longer and more specialized consultations, patients will have to use video services so that the doctor can visually assess their needs.

“We have to recognize that best clinical practice has a visual image between the doctor and their patient,” the health secretary told 2GB’s Luke Grant.

He said the necessary move to telemedicine consultations during the pandemic has been “revolutionary” but needs to become a more sustainable practice.

“We want this to remain an important part of our medicine in Australia… but we want to make sure it’s good quality medicine,” Mr Butler said.

He said exceptions would be made for patients in areas with poor internet or phone service, but stressed that doctors had been warned of the impending changes.

“There were quite a few notices. General practitioners should have been talking about this with their patients for a long time,” he said.

“Whenever there is a change like this, people will be caught off guard… at some point with a system this big, you have to make sure it delivers the best possible quality of service.”

Campbelltown Grand Prix Kenneth McCroary said the prep period doesn’t matter.

“A month of preparation for bad politics is still bad politics,” he said.

Dr McCroary criticized the changes as they link GPs to difficult Medicare obligations and cut life-saving services for vulnerable Australians.

Mr Butler acknowledged the cuts came at a time of heightened community transmission of Covid and influenza, but blamed the former government for the June 30 deadline.

However, opposition health spokesman Ann Ruston criticized the decision as “a completely and utterly premature response to the situation”.

She told 2GB’s Luke Grant that the previous government extended the end of telehealth services in December during a surge in Covid cases to ensure that “these older and more vulnerable people” still have access to medical services over the phone.

Ms Ruston argued that the government should have done the same during the third wave of the pandemic, when residents “need this particular service more than ever.”

“This ‘throw everything and see nothing’ response from the Health Secretary was very disappointing,” Ms Ruston said.

“The reality is that this is a shorthand for Medicare.”

She argued that more consultation with health professionals is needed to ensure vulnerable Australians, including the elderly, rural and indigenous people, have access to quality health care.

Originally published as Medicare and telehealth cuts called ‘completely premature’