Recent government announcements around telehealth and billing brings some interesting news for doctors in Australia.
While most often we hear about the negative and difficult aspects of managing the COVID pandemic, there is a standout positive story that most doctors and other health practitioners get around when it comes up in health news: Telehealth.
Not only did this funding ensure patients could consult with GPs during lockdowns or times when state governments were limiting movement to slow the spread of the virus – it also helped protect GPs and other healthcare professionals from being exposed. This effectively ensured the healthcare sector could continue to operate without the massive disruption that would have occurred had major components of it been knocked out by illness due to the virus.
By the middle of 2020, there was talk that this expansion in telehealth could be here to stay, with peak bodies such as the Australian Medical Association (AMA) spruiking the benefits of the expanded telehealth programme in an effort to make it a permanent fixture. And, indeed, in November 2020, Health Minister Greg Hunt made the announcement many hoped he would.
“Universal whole-of population telehealth … will now be permanent,” Hunt announced in a late November press conference, going on to say, “One thing that has come from COVID is the fact that we have skipped a decade and jumped from 2030 to 2020 for the delivery of telehealth for all Australians.”
While details were scant at the time, this seemed to bode well for the many health professionals who had been hoping for just such an outcome.
December 2021 update on Telehealth
Late in 2021, just as the Omicron variant was starting to spread, the federal government announced the ‘permanent’ move to offering telehealth via the Medicare schedule.
However, there were some caveats to this, notably, that funding of $106m over four years was being provided, implying there could be a revision (up or down) at the end of this period.
The government announcement outlined that some telehealth services were changing to “align with evidence and expert advice”, which was to “ensure patients receive high quality and high-value telehealth as part of the range of Medicare services they use.”
This meant that from 1 January 2022:
Eligible patients could continue to access GPs, specialists, nursing, midwifery and allied health services via telehealth.
People in remote regions of Australia could access an extended GP telephone consultation item.
Specialist physician telehealth services would be consolidated into a single national program.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, medical oncologist Professor Fran Boyle, who is also president of the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA), was appalled, saying that while “It looks like they’re giving everybody something “, patients would also be affected when phone consultations no longer had the same Medicare item number.
However, just a few weeks later in mid-January amidst the peak of the Omicron outbreak, the government performed a backflip, reintroducing some subsidised health teleservices until 30 June 2022, including specialist inpatient video and phone consultation items under the Medicare Benefits Schedule, complex specialist telephone consultations and level C or longer telephone consultations for general practitioners.
Whether this is further extended beyond June 30 remains to be seen, although given Australia will be in the middle of winter and potentially either another Omicron or influenza outbreak, or even facing a new COVID variant, there is obviously the possibility another extension might occur.
Changes to rural bulk-billing incentives
The other GP news to come out in terms of billing changes from January 1 concerned rural GPs. In positive news, bulk-billing incentives for GPs in rural and remote areas increased as follows:
MMM areas 3–4 (75855, 64992, 75861), valued at 160% of the fee for the relevant area item/s
MMM area 5 (75856, 64993, 75862), valued at 170% of the fee for the relevant area item/s
MMM area 6 (75857, 64994, 75863), valued at 180% of the fee for the relevant area item/s
MMM area 7 (75858, 64995, 75864), valued at 190% of the fee for the relevant area item/s
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