Labor promise raises allied health hopes

4 minute read

While a bit thin on details, the ‘Strengthening Medicare Fund’ may benefit rheumatology patients through better multidisciplinary care.

Labor announced last weekend that it will establish the Strengthening Medicare Fund to deliver better access and care for patients, with rheumatology patients to potentially benefit from better management of complex and chronic conditions and affordable access to multidisciplinary team care.

The $750 million committed over three years will fund the 10-Year Primary Healthcare Plan announced by the Morrison government in 2019 and published in March this year.

“The government then left … absolutely no funds to actually deliver the recommendations of that plan to improve access, to improve treatment options,” shadow health minister Mark Butler said on RN Breakfast after the announcement.

“The government had put in place $450 million in the 2019 budget specifically for this purpose, and they cut their own funding. And in this year’s budget, there was nothing for it,” said Mr Butler.

“So what we’ve said is this plan, so it doesn’t simply sit on a shelf and gather dust, needs funding needs policy decisions, to improve access and to improve care options. And we’ll deliver that.”

Mr Butler explained that key aspects of the plan included having more nurses and allied health professionals working alongside GPs, enabling GP-led multidisciplinary care. It’s about strengthening that relationship, said Mr Butler, which is particularly important for patients with complex and chronic disease.

The costing details are not yet available, and the priorities for implementation are yet to be determined. The first step will be establishing a taskforce comprising health policy leaders, with its recommendations deciding the way forward.

While the lack of detail makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the potential benefits for rheumatology patients, the current access to five Medicare rebates only for a calendar year is problematic says rheumatologist Dr Irwin Lim, and not good for care of chronic conditions.

“If we do have properly funded longer term care with much more access to allied health, say 50 sessions not five – think fibromyalgia and chronic severe spinal pain as examples – then yes, it will be a good thing,” said Dr Lim, who is also editor of Rheumatology Republic.

Physiotherapist Janet Millner, who has a special interest in rheumatology, also observed that people with rheumatology conditions have poor access to skilled allied health and multidisciplinary care, and “any improvement is to be welcomed and is badly needed”.

Rheumatology nurse practitioner Emma Bavage agreed, adding, “We want the right people looking after patients with rheumatological conditions, those who are trained in rheumatology and have a good understanding of working within a multidisciplinary rheumatology team to ensure patients get the best outcomes”.

Both Ms Millner and Ms Bavage cautioned that to be effective, it needs to be well coordinated with existing services and care taken that any new funding does not have a detrimental impact on other existing services – as has happened with other newly introduced schemes.

Allied Health Professions Australia, which has been actively campaigning for fair access to allied health for all Australians in this election, welcomed the announcement, as did the Australian College of Nursing:


The policy has been cautiously welcomed by the Consumer Health Forum, which was named as a potential member of the taskforce.          

CEO Leanne Wells noted that funding pledges to strengthen team-based primary care through general practice “is a start to the major investment needed to implement all elements of the 10 Year Primary Health Care Plan launched by the Coalition in March.

“Health is more than hospitals – the welcome investment in community-based integrated care will yield happier patients and better outcomes, at lower cost,” said Ms Wells.

“Providing enhanced coordinated care through a single location like a general practice is valued by consumers and will help meet the goal of keeping people well and out of hospital”.

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