Dr Nathan Kesteven

Telehealth services subsidised through Medicare will be extended until the end of December 2021, following an announcement in April by the Federal Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt. In a pre-Budget announcement the government said that in the past year Telehealth had been ‘life changing for many in need of support’ and that as part of the 2021-22 Budget more than $114 million will be allocated to extending the program until the end of this year.

‘Telehealth items were rapidly implemented in March 2020 to ensure our primary care sector could continue to function and that Australians could continue to access important health services, Mr Hunt said.

‘Telehealth has played an important role in supporting Australians through the pandemic. The extension will ensure that Australians can continue to see their GP, renew scripts and seek mental health support from the safety of their own home. This allows vulnerable Australians to feel protected and supported during these unprecedented times.

‘It is critical that Australians continue to look after their health and stay engaged with our primary care providers.”

From 13 March 2020 to 21 April 2021, over 56 million COVID-19 MBS telehealth services were delivered to 13.6 million patients, with $2.9 billion in Medicare benefits paid. More than 83,540 providers have used telehealth services.

The extension of Telehealth includes services for general practitioners, medical practitioners, specialists, consultant physicians, nurse practitioners, participating midwives, allied health providers and dental practitioners.

The profession broadly welcomed the announcement in the May 2021 Budget of the Telehealth extension. However, rural GPs were disappointed at the removal of longer (Level C & D) telephone consultations while the equivalent video consultations remained. Internet access is limited in rural Australia, where even telephone reception is often flaky. The longer consultations compromised only 14 per cent of services under Medicare and their removal seems to unjustly target older rural patients.

Local GP and NorDocs Co-chairman, Dr Nathan Kesteven, sought the local Member for Page Kevin Hogan’s assistance in highlighting this concern. Mr Hogan has approached Health Minister Greg Hunt but was advised that the Department of Health is unswayed. The decision reflects advice to the Department to prefer video consultations over telephone alone.