13 December 2022
Subjects: Labor’s cuts to Medicare-subsidised psychology sessions, Covid outbreaks in aged care homes
LUKE GRANT: This is a shocking call by the Government. It's own inquiry found the extra sessions aren't being used by patients who needed help most, but the University of Melbourne, who did some of the research here, also says the additional 10 sessions should continue to be made available and should be targeted towards those with more complex mental health needs. Now, the Government will examine how it can modify the system to better serve people dealing with mental illness. But this looks like a flat out cut to Medicare, doesn't it? And that's a pretty bad look, if you ask me, particularly if you like to see yourself as the political party of Medicare. The Government's also changing the way PCR testing is being done. I'm going to have a chat about that. The government will run tests - that is the state government - as normal, but if you usually get your free swab from a private run pathology lab, well, you'll now need to go to a doctor or nurse practitioner and get yourself a referral. Let's have a chat to Anne Ruston, who, as I said, is the Shadow Minister for Health and Aged Care. And the Senator joins me on the line. Anne, nice to talk again.
ANNE RUSTON: Yeah, hi Luke.
LUKE GRANT: This is pretty ordinary, the halving of the mental health appointments you can have from 20 back to 10. I note the Government's saying, oh, look, no one's really using them. But I can't help but be somewhat concerned about the reaction from those within the mental health sector, and there's lots of good people there who wouldn't be saying this for fun. How concerned are you?
ANNE RUSTON: Well, obviously, we're very, very concerned because there seems to be no basis on which the Minister has made this decision. He has provided no health advice, no modelling. All he's hidden behind is an independent report into the Better Access program, which, as you rightly said in your introduction, actually identifies the fact that – the report says that these particular psychology sessions should continue. And to do it at a time when we know Covid is still around. We're coming into Christmas when often people, particularly vulnerable people who are lonely, most feel the impact of mental health situations. We've got floods - I'm sitting here in Renmark in South Australia as I'm watching my town get surrounded by water and the anxiety that exists around that. The cost of living pressures. I mean, you'd have to be questioning why on earth the Minister would be making a decision like this now, in the wake of a terrible three years for Australians and with all of these challenges that are sitting right before us as we speak now.
LUKE GRANT: Yeah, that's exactly right. And some of this Anne, and I'm sure you'd agree with this, might not immediately materialise, but there'll be people who will be damaged with mental health as a result of having to deal with the pandemic or aftermath to it, people that have lost their jobs or whatever it might be, who might not yet be in a position to put their hand up and will. And, you know, you want to give everyone the best help you possibly can. I don't know what saving this gives the Government, but I just think it's a really bad look and it shows, I think, a lack of care around mental health at a time where we're, as a community, doing so much better and dealing with this. For a government to lead the way by saying, right, we'll just get nip that in the bud because it's not being used, I just, gosh, that does trouble me.
ANNE RUSTON: Yeah, and I think you make a really good point because we know that it's often two or three years after a crisis or a natural disaster or, in this case, a pandemic, that mental health supports are most needed. Because people draw on their own resilience, but once they get to a certain point, that is when they need the extra help. So it's just been so unbelievably ill-timed. And the response that we've seen today by Dr Carr-Gregg – but it hasn't just been him – the Institute of Clinical Psychologists, Suicide Prevention Australia, Australian Association of Psychiatrists and many other really reputable people in the mental health space have all come out and said, 'What are you doing?'. You can't make these sorts of decisions with such a lack of evidence. And you'd have to really question whether the Government is prioritising their Budget over the mental health of vulnerable Australians.
LUKE GRANT: Well, you don't have to. I was approached by a research centre doing great work in the mental health space and they said, look make no mistake, this is all about the dollars. That's what it's about, and it begins and ends there. So, you know, that's a really poor decision. Hopefully something might come from your opposition to it. Let's let's hope so. Look, I've just had a family member enter aged care after a pretty bad fall, and she's been there probably six or seven weeks. And in the third week of her time, she was in a place where there was a COVID outbreak and I was visiting regularly. And the way things changed, just from the point of view of the visitor, having to completely get PPE'd up, down to wearing the gown, the mask, the shield, and doing the test. I thought it was handled really, really well. And I think the care that my family member got was pretty good, given the circumstances. I think there ended up being tens of cases in this facility. What worries you about these outbreaks? Cause I note looking at the numbers, it's reported today that it has become a thing, and we had tragically the passing of 63 aged care residents last week. What do we need to do to make sure this is contained and not the beginning of another wave through aged care, which is the last thing we need?
ANNE RUSTON: Well, unfortunately, we are already seeing that the number of deaths in aged care as a result of COVID has absolutely skyrocketed in the last six or seven weeks, which is a real tragedy. And as you said, 63 residents of aged care homes died just last week. But what we have to understand is that whilst the rest of us who are not vulnerable are getting on with their lives and doing things to manage the risk around COVID, in our aged care facilities it still is quite an acute and dangerous thing to have happen, an outbreak of COVID in an aged care facility. So what we're doing is calling on the Government to make sure that they have got proper activated plans that are properly supported, that are taking the advice of the people that operate these facilities, to make sure that they are in a position to be able to keep people who are in these homes safe. And I'm really glad to hear that your relative has – that you think the care and the response to that was really good. We've got some fantastic aged care homes around Australia, but we need to be supporting them because they continue to do it tough. They continue to have to put in place the kinds of provisions and measures that many of us are now starting to not need to put in place, because they are so much more vulnerable. So just call on the Government. We need a plan. You can't bring in your winter preparedness plan at the end of July. You know, that's nearly the end of winter. They need to be more prepared. They need to be providing information to these homes. They need to make sure that the community has got confidence that they have got our backs. And the aged care facilities and all the amazing people that work in them – our really hard working aged care workers – They need the support of the Government. They don't need sort of ad hoc things like we saw yesterday, when less than 12 hours after the Government released their COVID plan going forward, we found out that they had made some sort of error in their announcements around PCR testing and availability of that. So we need consistency, we need clarity and we need to make sure that we reassure Australians that the Government really does know what they're doing.
LUKE GRANT: Yeah, you know, I think there's two things. Thing one is surely, and I would imagine there's still a stockpile somewhere of PPE, those aged care homes should just have whatever they want on tap, shouldn't they? I mean, it's that important in my view. And just in relation to PCR testing, surely we're still at a point given that 63 people died last week, that if you are feeling like you might have something and you want to be sure to keep people safe, why do we put a referral in front of a PCR test, for goodness sake, to make it that much harder to get people tested?
ANNE RUSTON: I think your point is absolutely valid in the sense of we want Australians to be living with COVID, we want them to be responsible and making sure that, if they have COVID, they stay home. So we need to be making it as easy as possible for people to be able to comply. But I think the other part of that decision around needing a referral to be able to get a PCR test is that our GPs are under such pressure at the moment and our primary health networks are under such pressure. To turn around and give them another job to do, they have to write a referral to be able to get a PCR test, I mean, really? When we know that they're under such pressure, it just seems like an ill-considered, ill -thought- out decision by government to try and stop people from getting PCR tests and save a bit of money. But really, at the end of the day, they're just causing a bigger problem for somebody else.
LUKE GRANT: Yeah, I think they're very valid points. Shadow Health and Aged Care Minister, Senator Anne Ruston. Thanks Anne, good to talk to you again.
ANNE RUSTON: Take care, cheers.