People with eating disorders to benefit from more Medicare-funded treatment

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Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt announced Aussies facing eating disorders will have access to 40 subsidised psychological services and 20 dietetic services. Source: Getty

Australians with serious eating disorders will have access to more mental health treatment through Medicare from November 1 next year.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt announced Aussies facing eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia will have access to a comprehensive plan through Medicare including up to 40 subsidised psychological services and 20 dietetic services. This is an increase of 30 psychological sessions and 15 more dietician appointments per year.

Morrison announced that $110 million in funding would be rolled out over four years as part of a Medicare package.

“This is a Medicare-scheduled item to ensure 60 different procedures, both dietetic and psychological, are included in the system,” Morrison said. “That’s going to help, we estimate, around 30,000 Australians a year.”

The government currently offers up to 10 sessions with a psychologist under the Medicare rebate scheme for Australians living with a variety of mental health problems. Australians currently eligible for the Better Access scheme can visit psychiatrists, psychologists and GPs and receive a Medicare rebate on more than the standard number of sessions for services.

At present, people only qualify for Better Access if they’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition such as bipolar, depression or anxiety and if their doctor says they’re eligible. Patients can have six individual and six group sessions and a doctor can refer a person for four additional treatments if they think it will help. Medicare rebates range from $84.80 to $124.50 per session for 10 sessions per calendar year.

People with eating disorders are currently eligible for these 10 psychological sessions a year and five sessions with a dietician, but there hadn’t been a formal Medicare item or service for people with eating disorders specifically.

The government has not said if it plans on extending the increased psychologist sessions to those living with other mental illnesses. 

Hunt explained on ABC Breakfast Sydney on Monday that the government asked the Medicare Task Force to do a review and found that there needed to be a radical transformation and an individual Medicare plan for those with eating disorders. He added that rates of mortality rates for those with eating disorders are higher than most other psychiatric disorders. He also said things were not improving for people with eating disorders.

“It’s been driven in part by body image and images we see across the media and in advertising,” he explained. “We were working through this recently that there’s been a dramatic increase not just in diagnosis, as has been the case with some mental health conditions, but in terms of the actual underlying frequency or the prevalence.

“And it’s something that wasn’t common 40 or 50 years ago, it was certainly known but it’s become an increasing tragedy.”

The move has been welcomed by the Australian Psychological Society, which said 10 sessions a year is inadequate in treating complex mental health issues.

“We know the most cost-effective treatment for eating disorders such as anorexia is cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which challenges learnt ways thinking,” APS President Ros Knight said in a statement. “Evidence shows at least 20 sessions of treatment are needed, and in severe cases at least 40 CBT sessions are needed to restore healthy eating attitudes and behaviours.”

Meanwhile, the Government on Monday also said it was supporting three million people who suffer from depression and anxiety by providing $33.8 million to help fund Beyond Blue programs.

“Improving mental health services is a key pillar of the Government’s long term national health reform plan and this announcement builds on the Government’s record levels of investment,” Hunt said in a statement. “The Liberal National Government is prioritising better mental health for all Australians with an additional $338.1 million allocated in the 2018-19 Budget and $4.7 billion expected to be spent on mental health this financial year.”

If you’re depressed or need someone to talk to, there are many 24/7 support lines available, including Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, MensLineAustralia on 1300 789 978 and Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.

What are your thoughts on this? Should extra psychological sessions be extended to all people living with mental health problems?

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