Person holding phone and stethoscope

Government silence on Medicare item numbers is impacting healthcare

Sigrid Firth Abortion, Advocacy, Equity and access, Media

Marie Stopes Australia and the Australian Healthcare and Hospital Association (AHHA) has called on the Australian Government to act quickly to expand and protect COVID-19 Medicare items that support telehealth provision of sexual and reproductive healthcare.

The Australian Government acted swiftly to broaden the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) to support expanded telehealth services during COVID-19 and these changes have been critical in supporting patients to access sexual and reproductive health services during the pandemic.

However, the restrictions placed on the use of these item numbers for telehealth in July limited access to COVID-19 MBS item numbers for vital sexual and reproductive health services. The restrictions meant that most patients could only access telehealth services under the MBS if they are a regular patient of a GP or practice and have been an active patient within the last 12 months.

Managing Director of Marie Stopes Australia, Jamal Hakim says, “restricting the use of telehealth item numbers during this pandemic has even further penalised women, pregnant people and people who need to access vital STI treatments.”

“At a time when there are significant movement restrictions, limited telehealth item numbers to a person’s regular GP will deter people from seeking timely treatment and cause another public health crisis.”

This has unwittingly penalised people accessing time-bound services such as medical termination of pregnancy, STI testing, Blood Borne Virus (BBV) consultations and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) for HIV prevention.

These services are often not provided by a person’s regular GP.

Chief Executive Officer of AHHA, Alison Verhoeven says “as we face the most significant health and economic challenges experienced in a century, we need big-picture thinking and serious policy reform efforts in healthcare that are agile and innovative. There is no practical or clinical reason why MBS telehealth funding should not be applied to sexual and reproductive health.’

‘In sexual and reproductive health, as with most other important areas of healthcare, we cannot shy away from disruptive thinking and the need to do business differently to take full advantage of the modern technologies available to us.’

‘Telehealth services in sexual and reproductive health have proven to be effective during the current COVID-19 pandemic. We should not sacrifice that in order to maintain yesterday’s healthcare practices, processes and professional interests.’

In July 2020, Marie Stopes Australia, the Australasian Society for HIV, Viral Hepatitis and Sexual Health Medicine (ASHM) and GP representatives met with the Australian Government to outline the impact of the MBS item number restrictions. At this meeting, the Government committed to considering lifting the restrictions.

An Open Letter was also presented to Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, signed by the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association (AHHA), Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA), Human Rights Law Centre, Public Health Association of Australia, Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA), La Trobe University, Centre for Excellence in Rural Sexual Health, University of Melbourne and the Centre for Social Research in Health, UNSW Sydney.

There has been no communication from the Government since late July on this important issue. Marie Stopes Australia, AHHA, ASHM and the sexual and reproductive health sector across Australia is calling on the Government to urgently lift restrictions on the COVID-19 MBS telehealth item numbers.

“Since July the entire sexual and reproductive health and broader public health sector has been calling on the Government to lift these restrictions. The continued silence from the Government must end now,” says Mr Hakim.