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Thursday, 21 October 2010
Page: 1225


Ms O’DWYER (12:41 PM) —I rise to speak on a recent decision by the Rudd-Gillard, now Gillard, government which will severely affect access to mental health services both nationally and in my electorate of Higgins . Under the Better Access to Mental Health Care program, social workers and occupational therapists have been able to bulk-bill clients with non-acute mental illnesses. But in changes announced in the last federal budget the government has decided to scrap this rebate.

The previous coalition government introduced the Better Access to Mental Health Care program in 2006. The program has successfully created an integrated mental health network that provides a greater range of services for those suffering from mental health problems as well as more choice and vastly improved accessibility. The program added new healthcare items and services to the Medicare Benefits Schedule to allow patients to claim Medicare rebates on mental health treatment with registered providers. The program has provided a structured framework for GPs to undertake early intervention, assessment and management of patients with mental disorders. It also provided people with a network of psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and social workers to enhance the accessibility of mental health services.

The new framework has provided marked benefits to the health and wellbeing of our community over a long period of time. The health and happiness of our community is important not only for the social benefits that it brings but also for our economy. Mental illness impacts directly on the productivity of our workforce—from the number of days that people are absent from the workforce, through to people actually being able to commence and continue working at all. It is vital that mental health patients have the best possible choice and range of services.

In Labor’s last budget it removed social workers and occupational therapists from the Better Access to Mental Health Services program. The role that social workers and occupational therapists play in our health system is vital. They offer an important range of skills and expertise that are tailored to the specific needs of the patient. Often they will be in a better position to understand the issues facing the patient and the appropriate methods of treatment. They are also very cost effective. Labor’s decision to remove these important services from the budget was an ill-considered one and will have a dramatic and direct impact on vulnerable mental health patients. It is unfortunate that Labor’s reckless debt and spending and its fiscal mismanagement have led to cuts in such an important area. I believe that the long-term costs of this decision will far outweigh any short-term budget saving that the government was hoping to achieve.

Families in my electorate of Higgins have raised with me serious concerns about access if these cuts are allowed to proceed. One mental health service provider in my area is the Delta Centre, which provides services in Malvern. It offers to hundreds of people in the local area a variety of Medicare covered mental health services by highly experienced and trained occupational therapists and social workers. If the cuts proposed by the government proceed as planned, the loss of mental health services and expertise and the reduced access to services will be felt not just in my electorate but throughout Australia.

By contrast, we in the coalition have a vision for mental health care. I was proud of the coalition’s widely praised $1.5 billion Real Action Plan for Better Mental Health. The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing in 2007 found that one in five Australian adults experience mental illness in any year. One in four of these people experience more than one disorder. The survey also shows clearly the importance of health providers in treating mental health problems. One in three people with a 12-month mental disorder used health services for mental health problems over the course of the 12 months. This amounts to 1.1 million Australians who rely on these services for treatment. The coalition’s policy focused on early intervention and early access is one that recognises the depth of mental health problems in our community and the debilitating effect that they can have on those who suffer from them and the families that support them.

Mental health issues can affect people regardless of the socioeconomic background that they might have. Our policy is one that puts mental health on the same level as physical health as a factor that determines the overall wellbeing of individuals. The coalition’s plan to build a new system of care will take pressure off existing health services. It is a pity that the government did not embrace it. (Time expired)