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Medicare rollback will limit sexual & reproductive health access

Sigrid Firth Abortion, Advocacy, Equity and access, Media

Planned changes from 20 July to Medicare items for telehealth consultations will significantly impact on timely, affordable access to sexual and reproductive health services across Australia, according to Marie Stopes Australia and the Australasian Society for HIV, Viral Hepatitis and Sexual Health Medicine (ASHM).

Marie Stopes Australia and ASHM are calling on the Federal Government to urgently reinstate temporary MBS item numbers to enable access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and have launched an open letter to Minister Greg Hunt and are calling on sexual and reproductive health providers to sign the letter online.

Marie Stopes Australia Managing Director, Jamal Hakim says “telehealth services have played a critical role in the provision of healthcare across Australia for more than 5 years. “During COVID-19 they have been absolutely essential to ensure continuity of time-bound sexual and reproductive health services, including medical abortion, across the country.”

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.

The changes broadened the criteria for access to the MBS item numbers for telehealth consultations by GPs and other health professionals to new patients. This has meant that patients have had more choice in the doctors they can consult via telehealth for services that are not provided by their regular GP. This includes the provision of medical termination of pregnancy, STI testing, and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) for HIV prevention.

CEO of ASHM, Alexis Apostolellis says “there are many reasons someone might not go to their regular GP for STI testing, treatment and prevention, including privacy concerns or a GP’s lack of specialist sexual health knowledge.”

Changes to the temporary MBS item numbers announced last Friday afternoon will mean patients can 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.

This decision will hinder sexual and reproductive healthcare access in Australia because some patients’ regular GPs:

  • Work in clinics that do not always offer specialist sexual and reproductive health services
  • Have not completed the additional training required to provide specific sexual and reproductive health services
  • Conscientiously object to providing certain sexual and reproductive health services
  • Experience a range of challenges in providing accessible services due to a range of access, equity and agency issues.

“By making it harder to access sexual health services, these changes to telehealth will affect the people already most vulnerable to stigma in health settings. This includes people from LGBTIQ or culturally and linguistically diverse communities, people who use drugs or engage in sex work”, says Mr Apostolellis.

“These changes have unfairly and inappropriately impacted on medical professionals including GPs who provide these specialised services”, Mr Hakim says.