The Federal Government will pump in an extra $2 billion to ensure vital coronavirus health support, including telehealth facilities, hospital funding and virus clinics keep running until the end of March 2021.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and health minister Greg Hunt will officially outline the funding extension on Friday, but details of the plan were shared on Thursday evening, with the expansion of home medicine delivery, free COVID tests and more PPE for the national stockpile.
The government will also commit to paying half the costs of responding to coronavirus cases in hospitals.
Mr Hunt said there were more than 30 million telehealth consultations so far this year as Australians opted to use video or phone calls to contact health workers if they couldn’t – or preferred not to – visit in person.
“By providing telehealth and home delivery medicine services we are reducing the risk of exposure of COVID-19 in the community while also supporting people in isolation to get the care they need,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday.
Due to lockdowns, physical distancing and concerns around COVID quarantine or isolation, the federal government announced a vast expansion of telehealth arrangements as the pandemic took hold.
Mr Hunt claimed the health department had “brought forward a 10-year plan on Telehealth within 10 days,” rapidly scaling up the capacity for the system to cater for appointments with GPs or psychologists.
Telehealth arrangements, announced in March, were due to expire on September 30.
At the time, the government had pledged to review the arrangements “in light of the need to continue our battle against COVID-19”, with Friday’s announcement the next step in extending those plans.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners said the initial expansion of telehealth was “seen as a key measure in keeping GPs, practice nurses, staff and patients safe from potential COVID infections”.
RACGP President-elect, Dr Karen Price, said in recent days that telehealth should be permanently expanded and made available to Australians, calling it a vital tool in increasing access for patients.
Mental health experts called on the government to urgently lock in long-term telehealth support, saying winding back the program would take a huge toll on those who are relying on it for psychological reasons.
Government statistics show telehealth has been enthusiastically taken up by Australians.
In the first six months of the telehealth expansion, nearly 11 million consultations were recorded in Victoria, reaching 3.22 million patients.
In NSW, it was 9.1 million consultation and 3.28 million patients. The federal government said 10.5 million patients had accessed telehealth services since March.
The most used telehealth services were for calls with a GP, then calls with consultant physicians and specialists.
Nearly one million medicine services were delivered to homes under the government’s plan.
The $2 billion funding allotment, to be detailed more specifically on Friday, will see the government commit to another six months of telehealth services for GPs, nurses, midwives and mental health professionals; medicine delivery; free COVID pathology tests; respiratory clinics; and half the cost of “activities to respond to COVID-19 in hospitals”.
The government also committed to purchasing more vital personal protective equipment for the national medical stockpile.
“We will continue to provide Australians with critical health care and support to protect both lives and livelihoods,” Mr Morrison said.