Focus on: Health

Focus on: Health
17 April 2020

As Australia’s coronavirus curve continues to flatten, governments remain focused on strengthening the capacity of the health system. Below we explore some recent developments that may have longer-term public policy implications for the health sector.

Expansion in telehealth

The Federal Government has rapidly expanded access to telehealth to help reduce community transmission of coronavirus, protect patients and healthcare workers while facilitating access to health care. Temporary items have been added to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS), enabling patients to access a range of telehealth services at home via video or telephone. Bulk billing incentives for GPs have been doubled for both telehealth and face-to-face appointments and eligible GP clinics can upgrade their NBN connection for free to help manage the demands of telehealth.

The new arrangements will be in place until the end of September, however advocacy groups are pushing for the changes to be made permanent, arguing that telehealth is under-utilised and could play an important role in chronic disease management going forward.

Private hospitals

In late March, non-urgent elective surgery in public and private hospitals was suspended to free up resources to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The Federal Government has guaranteed the viability of private hospitals in exchange for their provision of infrastructure, services and staff during the coronavirus response. Following the announcement, private hospital operators have been progressively finalising COVID-19 partnership agreements with the states and territories. Under these arrangements, private hospitals will be contracted by the states to assist in providing health care for patients as required, with the two systems operating in an integrated way.

While private hospitals play a role in the delivery of public health services from time-to-time, these arrangements are ad-hoc and on a much smaller scale. The new COVID-19 arrangements represent a coordinated, integrated approach to collaboration between the nation’s public and private hospitals and may prompt policymakers to consider innovative approaches to health care in the future.

PHI premium freeze

All major private health insurers have deferred premium increases from 1 April until October. Many have also announced relief measures for those experiencing financial hardship. The temporary suspension of all non-urgent elective surgery will result in a decline in PHI claims in the short-term, while social distancing measures may discourage members from accessing extras services during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some have warned that a backlog of elective surgery will build up over coming months, creating a bottleneck in the health system and simply deferring the PHI claims process. Others have made the point that people experiencing financial hardship may abandon private health insurance, joining a growing number of Australians opting out of PHI.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison indicated yesterday that elective surgery may resume sooner rather than later, provided there is an adequate supply of personal protective equipment. Both the private hospital sector and private health insurers will be watching closely when National Cabinet considers the issue further on Tuesday.

Kirsten Mulley is GRACosway’s Health Practice Lead and Managing Partner – Public Affairs. She has more than two decades’ experience addressing complex policy, political and media issues. Kirsten is a director of the Hunter Medical Research Institute and is passionate about GRACosway’s pro bono work with Ovarian Cancer Australia.

Contact Kirsten on +61 408 476 470 or Contact Us


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