Government announces Medicare-funded mental health assessments for pregnant women

Government announces Medicare-funded mental health assessments for pregnant women

Government announces Medicare-funded mental health assessments for pregnant women

Updated 23 August 2017, 13:55 AEST

Medicare is about to fund mental health assessments for pregnant women, under new measures being adopted by the Federal Government.

Pregnant women will soon have access to free mental health assessments during and after pregnancy, under new measures being adopted by the Federal Government.

The decision is in response to recommendations made by a taskforce examining thousands of Medicare-funded services.

Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Michael Gannon said early intervention was key to treating postnatal depression.

"Healthy mothers who are functioning well are more likely to take good care of their babies," he said.

"Not a year goes by where we don't learn more and more about the importance of the first 1,000 days of a child's life.

"They are critical in setting up a human being for good health for the rest of their life."

From November, pregnant women will receive free mental health assessments during their pregnancy and within two months of giving birth.

That was one of dozens of recommendations made by a taskforce set up to examine the Medicare Benefits Schedule.

Dr Gannon said it was a welcome investment that ensured obstetricians performed screening tests for postnatal depression during the antenatal period.

"To identify women who might already be depressed, but at the very least identify that group of women who are at increased risk of postnatal depression, and invest wherever possible in preventing it happening," he said.

For Australians in rural areas, finding follow-up treatment after surgery can often be difficult.

Under the current system, only specialists are able to bill Medicare for post-surgery consultations.

But under the Government decision to change the rules, GPs will now also be paid.

Recognising importance of women's mental health

Obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Vijay Roach, founder of the Gidget Foundation, said there had always been a focus on the physical issues during pregnancy.

But he said this was a step in the right direction of acknowledging mental health was also an essential component of any women's health.

He said currently pre-natal anxiety and depression among pregnant women often went unrecognised.

"If you have a formal screening program, if you actually ask the questions, you will discover that pre-natal anxiety and depression doesn't discriminate, it can affect anyone," he said.

"Women can have risk factors like social isolation, or previous mental health disorders or other things.

"But we know that 20 per cent of women are affected by anxiety and depression in pregnancy or early parenting … so by asking the question we can identify it.

"And we know that early intervention and continuing intervention makes a difference and reduces risk to mother and her baby and ongoing problems."

Dr Roach said identifying the problem enabled early interventions.

They could include starting a conversation, making family members aware of the issue, referring the patient to a GP or psychiatrist, treatments like cognitive behaviour therapy and medications.

"That can reduce the instances of these conditions being exacerbated," he said.

"The really important message is if emotional wellbeing is impaired during pregnancy or early parenting, that by identifying and treating it effectively, women can get better.

"[This will] also have a cultural and social effect, because we've recognised that mental health is an important part of a woman's care."

Local GPs given recognition in rule change

So, under the current rules if a patient sees a surgeon or has an operation, the cost of any aftercare such as wound dressings or consultations is covered in the fee the surgeon charges.

Ewen McPhee, from the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, said when that person travels back to their country town and their GP treats them for the aftercare component, "that has to be done for free".

"Or an out-of-pocket cost is passed on to the patient themselves," he said.

"This is unfair for rural doctors in rural communities, where we need to be supported to pay for dressings and other material to help people recover from surgery.

"This is a recognition, particularly for country people, of how important it is [that] their local GPs and local practices are supported to provide this care."

The Government said it was adopting dozens of other recommendations from the taskforce, but they have yet to reveal the details.

Catherine King, the Opposition's spokeswoman for health, said further clarity was needed.

"There'll be a lot of scrutiny on what the Government has accepted and what they haven't accepted, it's important they put that detail out there as soon as possible," she said.

"Because what we've seen in the past is when there are changes to the capacity of GPs or specialists to bill Medicare, there is quite an adjustment that needs to be made.

"What we don't want to see happen is patients affected in that transition phase."