Cuts to a vital health service have been branded “entirely premature” as Australia battles rising Covid cases and a deadly flu season.
The Australian government has been criticized for prematurely restricting access to telemedicine consultations while Covid cases and influenza remain rife in the community.
The cuts, which went into effect on June 30, mean the end of more than 70 telemedicine consultations, including 33 complex technical articles, 40 inpatient technical articles and GP consultations that exceed 20 minutes.
Health Secretary Mark Butler said six out of seven telemedicine consultations were unaffected by the changes and short telemedicine consultations with general practitioners (GPs) were still available.
For longer and more specialized consultations, patients need to use video services to ensure their doctor can visually assess their needs.
“We need to recognize that best clinical practice has a visual image between the doctor and their patient,” the health secretary told 2GB’s Luke Grant.
He said the necessary transition to telemedicine consultations during the pandemic has been “revolutionary” but needs to become a more sustainable practice.
“We want to see that remain a big part of how we do medicine in Australia… but we want to make sure it’s high-quality medicine,” Mr Butler said.
He said exceptions would be made for patients in areas with poor internet or phone connections, but stressed doctors had been warned about the upcoming changes.
“There’s been a lot of attention. GPs should have been talking about this with their patients for a while,” he said.
“Anytime there’s a change like that, people are going to be surprised…at some point, with a big system like this, you have to make sure it’s delivering the best possible quality of care.”
Campbelltown GP Kenneth McCroary said preparation time was irrelevant.
“A month of preparation for bad policy is still bad policy,” he said.
dr McCroary criticized the changes as they would bind GPs with complicated Medicare obligations and limit essential services for vulnerable Australians.
Mr Butler recognized the cuts came at a time of increased community transmission of Covid and influenza, but blamed the previous government for the June 30 deadline.
However, opposition health spokeswoman Anne Ruston criticized the decision as “a totally and utterly premature response to the situation”.
She told 2GB’s Luke Grant that the previous government extended the December end date for telehealth services amid rising Covid case numbers to ensure “these elderly and more vulnerable people” continued to have access to medical services over the phone.
Ms Ruston argued the government should have done the same during the third wave of the pandemic, when residents “need this special service more than ever”.
“That response from the Secretary of Health, ‘Throw everything out and there’s nothing to see here’ was very disappointing,” Ms Ruston said.
“The reality is this is a cut in Medicare.”
She argued that more consultations with healthcare professionals were needed to ensure vulnerable Australians – including the elderly, rural and Indigenous populations – had access to quality medical care.
Originally released as Medicare and telemedicine cuts, criticized as “completely premature”.