Cuts to the Better Access initiative, announced in the May 2011 Federal Budget, have been rigorously opposed by the Australian Psychological Society. The redirection of funds to other programs will leave many thousands of Australians with moderate to severe mental health problems without access to the appropriate length of effective treatment, after the reduction in the number of allowable sessions of psychological treatment from 18 to 10. The number of allowable sessions was capped at 10 sessions maximum from 1 January 2013. With major problems in access to alternative care, the APS has urged the Government to find a permanent solution under Medicare for those affected by the changes.
Read important updates on the changes and details of the APS campaign against the cuts on this regularly updated page.
Important update – reduction in the Better Access session allowance from 1 January 2013Although the APS will continue its advocacy and negotiations with the Federal Government, members need to be aware that from 1 January 2013 the ‘exceptional circumstances’ sessions are no longer be available. The maximum number of sessions of psychological treatment that a client can receive in the 2013 calendar year is 10 sessions.
Clients who commenced treatment with a psychologist under the Better Access initiative at the beginning of 2013 have started to reach the 10 session limit per calendar year, and the reductions to the session allowance this year will increasingly have an impact. APS advocacy for the reinstatement of the exceptional circumstances sessions under Better Access is continuing, as is the overall advocacy with both the Government and the Opposition for the maintenance of this highly successful and cost-effective mental health initiative.
To inform the APS advocacy, members are invited to participate in the APS Better Access Survey 2013. The aim of the 2013 survey is to collect data on clients seen by APS psychologists under the Better Access initiative in 2013 who, at the end of the allowable 10 sessions of treatment, were judged by the psychologist to need further treatment. The study aims to investigate the nature of these clients and the additional treatment arrangements that were put in place. The survey will remain open for the 2013 calendar year and data can be entered at any time. It is recommended that data for relevant clients is entered close to the time when their 2013 episode of treatment ended.
The APS has tendered its Budget submission ahead of the setting of the 2013-14 Federal Budget, which contained a measure to improve access to psychological services for all Australians by restoring the six sessions for exceptional circumstances under the Better Access initiative for clients meeting specified criteria. The APS Budget submission is being followed up with personal advocacy with key Ministers and their Advisors.
A new APS study of Better Access clients has been undertaken to inform the campaign for permanent reinstatement of the exceptional circumstances sessions, given the effectiveness of the 2011 APS study in assisting APS advocacy. The 2012 study results will be presented to the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, the Hon. Mark Butler, and his advisors in meetings in November. On the basis of the study results, the APS has prepared a funding proposal to present to the Minister to enable those many thousands of Australians with serious high prevalence mental health disorders to continue to access the appropriate length of effective and cost-efficient psychological treatment under the highly successful Better Access initiative.
The APS has prepared a Briefing Paper with background information on the APS advocacy campaign, the results of the APS 2012 study and the funding proposal to the Australian Government for the continuation of the Better Access ‘exceptional circumstances’ sessions. A media release has also been prepared as part of this advocacy.
The steady decline in the use of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications in Australia has been attributed to increased access to psychological treatments under the Better Access initiative.
A study examining data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian National Health Survey — published in the May 2012 edition of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry — found that the rates of psychological distress had remained steady. Survey data related to 48,000 adults aged over 25 for the period 2001 to 2008.
Professor Michael Berk, Chair in Psychiatry at Deakin University, told Medical Observer that he believes the decline in use of antidepressants may be due to the introduction of Better Access, and a “shift from antidepressants as a primary treatment strategy to psychological treatments”.
He said that the more widespread access to psychological therapies put Australia at the forefront of mental health reform.
The interim arrangements to reinstate the ‘exceptional circumstances’ sessions under the Better Access initiative commenced on 1 March 2012, enabling eligible clients to access up to a total maximum of 16 sessions of treatment from a psychologist in the 2012 calendar year. The interim arrangements only apply for a transitional period from 1 March to 31 December 2012.
The additional six sessions of Better Access treatment under exceptional circumstances will be reinstated for a transitional period, a decision announced by the Federal Government on 1 February. The increased allowance, available from 1 March until 31 December this year, aims to protect clients with complex needs who have been left without support following the 1 November 2011 changes to the Better Access initiative. The Government’s rationale for the decision is to provide time for capacity to be built into alternative mental health services where people with greater needs can be treated.
This decision is a direct reflection of the strong and persistent APS advocacy efforts, as well as those of individual members, since the cuts were first announced in last year’s Federal Budget. The reinstatement of the sessions is extremely important for vulnerable people with more complex mental health disorders who have been left without access to appropriate treatment as a result of the funding cuts. The APS will continue to press for the reinstatement of sessions to be made permanent.
The APS has proposed adjustments to the Better Access initiative as part of its Pre-Budget Submission to Federal Government. Many vulnerable Australians have been left without appropriate support following the cuts to the program in November. The APS has developed and costed an alternative solution which will protect the most vulnerable, at minimal cost to the Government – a proposal which has won media attention, in outlets such as The Australian, following interviews conducted by Lyn Littlefield (see media report at right).
The APS advocacy and negotiations around the cuts to the Better Access initiative have continued since the cuts were first announced in this year’s Federal Budget. Although the APS has persistently called for the Better Access cuts to be reversed, when it was clear that the cuts were going ahead from 1 November 2011, the APS proposed an alternative measure. This was to retain the additional sessions of psychological treatment under exceptional circumstances for Better Access consumers, with some changes to ensure appropriate usage. The proposal involved a stipulated criterion for access to the additional sessions based on a measure of the severity of the mental health condition, such as a nominated cut-off score on a mental health assessment instrument. This alternative measure is estimated to result in retaining nearly 70 per cent of the stated Budget savings. The proposal has been presented to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Mental Health, and will also be included in the APS 2012 Federal Budget submission.
In the lead-up to the release of the report from the Senate Inquiry in November 2011, the APS put forward this proposal to the Senate Committee and it was very pleasing to see that this alternative position was included as one of the recommendations from the Senate Inquiry. The proposal was subsequently incorporated into recommendations by The Greens for an interim program, as detailed in a media release by Senator Penny Wright on 24 November 2011.
The focus of the APS advocacy now is to demonstrate the impact of the Better Access cuts, with a view to having the exceptional circumstances sessions reinstated under tightened criteria in the 2012 Federal Budget. To this end, the APS will be conducting a survey in February next year to gauge the impact of the cuts on those consumers who were affected from 1 November when the changes were introduced. APS members will be asked to provide data on clients to whom this is applicable, and the aggregated data will be used to strengthen the APS campaign. Members will be invited to participate in this survey early next year.
The APS campaign against the cuts was strengthened in June 2011 through the collection of data on the potential impact of the cuts on nearly 10,000 clients who received treatment from psychologists in 2010. The APS study provided compelling evidence in support of the retention of the annual session allowance of 18 sessions of psychological treatment under the Better Access initiative. The research demonstrated that the removal of eight sessions will have a dramatic impact on many thousands of Australians with severe mental health problems, who will be denied effective treatment. APS media releases and reports were prepared highlighting the results of this research study.
In June 2011 a Senate Inquiry into Commonwealth funding and administration of mental health services was established, which included an investigation of the impact of the cuts to the Better Access initiative. The APS prepared a submission to the Inquiry which can be downloaded below. The Senate Inquiry received over a thousand submissions and also conducted a public hearing program to which the APS was invited to present. The Senate Committee released its report on 1 November 2011 and is to be congratulated on its recommendations.