This blog is part of a series relating to the economic impacts of the COVID-19, novel coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
The Federal Government has released a package of measures designed to support the continued provision of vital services to our most vulnerable while the country is in lockdown due to COVID-19. To this end, a new package has been announced, committing $1.1 billion to support expanded mental health and domestic violence services and ensure telehealth options are available to the broader population. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the objective of this package was to address some of the ‘secondary effects’ of the global pandemic and its health and economic fallout.
At $669 million, the expansion of Medicare subsidies for telehealth services represents the bulk of the package. All Australians are now eligible to consult with a GP via remote methods like phone or video conference. Under these arrangements, a new temporary Medicare item has been introduced, but to access the item, the provider must bulk-bill the service. This means there can be no out-of-pocket cost experienced by the patient. The bulk-billing incentive has also been doubled for services provided by GPs to those under 16 and those with a concession card.
The option to use telehealth services is welcomed by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Australian Medical Association, both of whom indicate telehealth goes a long way towards protecting patients, doctors and the public as well as reducing the demand on personal protective equipment, which is already in short supply.
Bulk-billed virtual sessions with a psychologist and psychiatrist are also covered under these new arrangements, which is a good step towards supporting the mental health needs of Australians at this difficult time. With reports of mental health services being swamped, an additional $74 million is being provided for other mental health services, such as $14 million for Kids Helpline and Lifeline as well as a dedicated coronavirus wellbeing helpline operated by Beyond Blue.
There is also $200 million in the new package for charities that help provide emergency relief to Australian families for their basic needs such as food, petrol and bills. Other services being supported include the National Debt Helpline and Financial Counselling Australia.
Another $150 million will be provided to fund additional services to support those experiencing or at risk of family violence. PWC estimated in 2015 that over one million women had experienced some form of physical or sexual violence, emotional abuse or stalking, or combination, by a partner. They estimated the economic cost of violence per annum at $21.7 billion with around half borne by the victim in pain, suffering, premature mortality, production and consumption related costs with around half from partner violence.
With additional stress and pressure on so many aspects of our lives, the knock-on effects of the pandemic can be extra dangerous for many who were already in a precarious situation. In announcing the package, the Government pointed to figures indicating that search engine queries for domestic violence help had increased 75% and many services were already experiencing a surge in demand. This echoes reports from China that domestic and family violence had seen a sharp increase, double and triple the ordinary rates, during the time in mandatory lockdown and isolation. In New York City, similar reports of increased violence against women and children have started to surface with added challenge of women not being able to access or wanting to access hospital if they need medical care and children not having supports of teachers or counselors. The funding will go towards existing counselling services such as 1800 Respect and Mensline Australia, among others, as well as towards a national campaign to promote the available family violence services.
This funding package is welcomed but many in the sector are calling for even greater commitments: in particular, for those in the most acute circumstances of risk. In discussing the Australian context, Amanda Gearing compares us to the UK, who have made ‘coercive control’ an illegal act, providing a proactive approach that does not wait for a physical act of violence to occur. She describes how many women are experiencing ‘domestic terrorism’, already hostages to circumstance, and with the new normal under COVID-19 this can escalate to deadly very quickly, especially when there are additional factors at play such as financial stress. Those who live with an abusive partner are at enormous risk, and even if they no longer share accommodation, many have children who are in a shared custody arrangement and need to negotiate ongoing contact. For many of the women she works with, there is a need for the provision of safe houses with rental support because, otherwise, they face a health risk far greater than COVID-19.
Contact National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.