Experts say the government’s new mental health advisory group must ensure the needs of older Australians, particularly those living in aged care, are given greater consideration.

Minister for Health Greg Hunt on Friday announced the formation of an advisory panel on mental health to examine how the government’s 31 Primary Health Networks are commissioning and planning mental health services.

The panel is to review the mental health plans developed by the 31 PHNs nationally and review the guidelines for mental health commissioning provided to the PHNs.

But experts say the panel must consider the mental health needs of older Australians.

Currently older people living in residential aged care are excluded from accessing the Better Access scheme which provides 10 subsidised sessions with a psychologist, despite studies showing that half of residents have depression.

Earlier this year Australian Ageing Agenda reported that the Commonwealth was not budging on the issue, despite a growing chorus of experts calling for a change. The Department of Health said the ongoing Medicare Benefits Schedule review is looking at the issue but no timeline for a decision was given (read our story here).

Seniors subsequently launched a petition calling on new health minister Greg Hunt to reverse the discriminatory policy.

Government must provide services

Marita McCabe

Marita McCabe, director of the Institute for Health and Ageing at Australian Catholic University, said the formation of the new advisory panel is a positive step but the government needed to provide services for all Australians – including those living in residential aged care.

“Mental health doesn’t discriminate – it impacts Australians regardless of their age, background or socio economic status, yet current support services don’t reflect this,” said Professor McCabe.

“Alarmingly, tens of thousands of elderly Australians in nursing homes are currently being denied access to psychological therapies because of a regulatory exclusion under the Better Access Medicare program.”

With around four million Australians living with mental health issues, it is important that the government provides adequate services that can be accessed by all Australians, including those living in residential aged care, she said.

“The mental health taskforce is an important step in achieving this and, with the right support, it will help ensure elder Australians suffering with mental health issues have access to relevant support services” she said.

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