Medicare-funded telehealth has been expanded to include health practitioners who are vulnerable to COVID-19, and will soon cover all patients and practitioners.
Doctors who are pregnant, 70 and over, indigenous and 50 and over, have an infant under 12 months at home, or are immunocompromised or have a chronic health condition, are now eligible to bulk bill telehealth for all their consultations, it was announced yesterday. This reflects the original patient population for whom phone or video consultations were eligible to be bulk-billed.
A “whole-of-population” response is expected by the end of the week.
This “stage four” telehealth expansion “will look to the best-practice expansion of telehealth items for all patients, with or without COVID-19, to see any general practitioner or medical specialist during the COVID-19 health emergency,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said, in a joint release with the AMA, RACGP, and the Health Department’s principal medical adviser Dr Michael Kidd.
It will also include mental health and allied health.
The arrangements will expire on September 30 this year “unless earlier revoked”, according to the legislation.
“It is important that this is done carefully to ensure these new items do not have unintended adverse consequences for patients or the health system, while allowing general practitioners and medical specialists to continue to work during the pandemic, using phone and video where clinically appropriate,” Mr Hunt said, promising regular webinar updates.
“We recognise telehealth is not appropriate for the management of all health care problems and in many cases face-to-face consultations will still be needed … We cannot risk a reduction in the standard of medical care provided to the people of Australia.”
There was no announcement on the fast-tracking of electronic prescribing to further reduce the number of in-person appointments needed.
The Health Department told TMR it was “working closely with the Australian Digital Health Agency and software vendors to enable fast-track electronic prescribing”.
“The department is working with the states and territories to make sure all options are considered, including improvements to existing software. One of the key things we need to consider is ensuring safety, and ensuring controlled drugs remain controlled.
“In the meantime, there are straightforward approaches available to transmit scripts online, through email and fax.”
TMR has sought clarification on the rules around emailed and faxed prescriptions. Currently a pharmacist can dispense based on an electronic prescription as long as they receive an inked paper prescription at some stage, in a concession exploited by online providers such as Instant Scripts and the new Chemist2U.