Radio interview with Assistant Minister McBride and Nick Lowther, ABC Western Plains Breakfast - 15 May 2024

Read the transcript of Assistant Minister McBride's interview with Nick Lowther on the Federal Budget; mental health; Dubbo Medicare Mental Health Centre; health workforce.

The Hon Emma McBride MP
Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention
Assistant Minister Rural and Regional Health

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NICK LOWTHER, ABC WESTERN PLAINS: We have been dissecting the Federal Budget today, taking a closer look at what it means for us in regional and rural Australia. A mixed reaction to announcements made in the mental health space Emma McBride is the Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention and joins us for today. Assistant Minister, first of all, good morning. In regional areas, what do you see as the benefits in the budget when it has come to mental health support?

EMMA MCBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: What we're launching is a new national early intervention service. This service will mean that people can access free, high quality, evidence-based therapy from trained professionals, without needing a referral or having to wait for a diagnosis. And what we know is that many people are in distress, and with heightened distress, early intervention can make a really significant difference to them and to their wellbeing. We're really pleased to be launching this new national early intervention service. It will particularly help people living in the electorates and electorates like Parkes, where sometimes access to mental health support has been difficult because of distance, and the access to specialist mental health support. This will make a really big difference for people across Australia, but especially for people living in the more regional parts of Australia.

Also, and this is really good news for the Parkes electorate and the broader Western Plains, the government is rolling out 61 Medicare Mental Health Centres, building on the previous head to health model. And this will include a new centre which is due to begin, operation in Dubbo later this year. And that mental health centre will mean that somebody can walk in without an appointment, without a referral, and be able to access free, quality mental health care and support. And what we're doing is we're strengthening that model by upgrading the clinical capability so that in each of those centres, those 61 centres across Australia, someone will have access to a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and a GP on call. So really making sure that people can have access to quality and timely mental health care and support close to home, particularly for those 7 million Australians that live outside of our capital cities.

NICK LOWTHER: When we look here with that mental health support, there's 61 that have been announced there, those mental health centres. When- what sort of timeline are we imagining that they could be built and underway?

EMMA MCBRIDE: 20 of them are up and running already, and this is building on the Head to Health model. And the one in Dubbo will be up and running later this year. So, by the end of 2024, there will be a new Medicare Mental Health Centre in Dubbo where local people can walk in, without an appointment, without a diagnosis, to get free quality mental health care and support in a wraparound environment. Because we know that multidisciplinary team-based care is the right kind of care. And we know that this is the type of support that people, particularly living outside of our major cities, need and deserve closer to home and more affordably.

NICK LOWTHER: The federal government last year did announce a halving in regard to Medicare rebated psychology sessions, 20 down to 10. Will that impact using these mental health centres, or will that be under a different model?

EMMA MCBRIDE: What we saw before and with the evaluation of Better Access, that although for those people using Better Access, they were benefiting from it, many people were locked out of the system of care, including older people, people living in regional and remote parts of Australia. What we've done is in response to the Better Access evaluation is we're introducing the new National Early Intervention Service for someone who might be in distress – that could be through a relationship breakdown, unemployment - so that they can get that support they need in distress. And it will take the pressure off the Better Access system, so it's not that one size fits all for everybody. It'll also mean that psychologists can work to the top of their scope of practice. So that an individual who needs a clinical psychologist and their clinical support and intervention, is more able to access that care. So what we believe that this will do by introducing an overall system of mental health care and support, early intervention for people in distress, Better Access to someone with more moderate needs, and walk in centres for people with more complex problems. It will mean that whatever the person's individual needs are, there'll be a level of support to meet their needs at that time.

NICK LOWTHER: With that level of support, though, the concern is always the cost and it's quite prohibitively costly once you pass those ten sessions. Would the federal government at this stage look at means testing even the sessions back again to try and help even out the amount of pressure on psychologists to keep people seeing the psychologist and managing the cost at the same time?

EMMA MCBRIDE: What this will mean, and through having now an overall system of stepped care where there's early intervention, which is free, where there is Medicare Mental Health Centres, which are free, where there is Better Access which is subsidised and now better targeted for the people who we know from the evaluation will most benefit from it. So, it will mean that an individual will be able to access the right level of care and support much more affordably and will open up access to psychology appointments for those who are most likely to benefit from them. So what we believe overall is this will improve access and timeliness, to mental health care, particularly for people living outside of our capital cities, because at the moment, most of our psychologists’ services are set up in those capital cities. This will be a big step forward in access to mental health care and support for those 7 million Australians that live outside of our major cities.

NICK LOWTHER: Assistant Minister, the Australian Association of Psychologists, the Australian Medical Association, independent Senator David Pocock have criticised these measures, saying that the rebates would have been a better use of money, and that these medical centres may not make a dent. Are you confident that these centres will make a dent in the waiting lists?

EMMA MCBRIDE: I know that these centres are already supporting people around Australia. I visited them in Launceston in Tasmania, in Geelong in Victoria, and in Tuggerah in my own electorate, and it reduces many of the barriers that have stopped people being able to access care. They won't need a diagnosis, they won't have to wait for a diagnosis, they won't need a referral, and they won't have to pay. I believe with this network - and as I said, there's 20 up and running already, there will be one opening in Dubbo in the Parkes electorate by the end of this year - that we will see big improvement in access to support and care and psychologists being able to work to their top of scope of practice. So this will be really about matching the service to the needs of that individual at that point in time and having an overall system of stepped care that meets the needs of individuals and families at that point in time. I believe that this will make a significant difference to the access to mental health to support and care, particularly for people living outside of our major cities.

NICK LOWTHER: Are you confident that the centre will be able to be fully staffed? There's been lots of concerns for professionals in regional areas and the attraction of professionals, though opened will- are you confident you'll be able to get that fully staffed?

EMMA MCBRIDE: We made a significant investment in the last budget in the pipeline of mental health workforce. We have a ten-year mental health workforce strategy. We've made a significant investment in psychologists and psychiatrists and also a new and developing workforce to peer workforce. We know sometimes the best support you can get is from someone who's been in your shoes. And what we're doing is setting up a professional association of peer workers, to be able to increase the support that they can provide to people, including in these centres. So these centres will be staffed by a diverse, incredibly well trained workforce, including peer workers, mental health social workers, and with access to psychologists, psychiatrists and GPs on call. I'm confident that with the model we have and working through the Primary Health Network and their robust commissioning process, that we'll be able to get the right workforce in these centres, including in Dubbo.

NICK LOWTHER: Assistant Minister, thank you for your time.

EMMA MCBRIDE: Thank you. Good to be with you.

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