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It’s a fact: DHS just keeps us hanging on the telephone

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If getting through on the PBS Authority prescription service seems to be taking even longer than ever, the AMA can confirm this is not a figment of your imagination.

After months of badgering, the Department of Human Services (DHS), which is responsible for operating the phone line, finally provided us with updated statistics regarding call waiting times, so that we could compare performance over time.

We can confirm what many doctors have suspected, that call waiting times did get a lot worse between October 2013 and February 2014.

During this period, just 50 per cent of calls were answered within 30 seconds, compared with 67 per cent during the same time a year ago.

Not only that. The DHA figures show that 16 per cent of callers were forced to wait more than two minutes to talk with someone, up from 12 per cent a year earlier.

Even worse, this drop in performance occurred despite a 12 per cent decline in the number of calls because an increasing number of medicines were moved to streamlined approval arrangements.

The good news is that DHS has introduced a new telephone scheduling tool to help it anticipate peak call periods. As a result, it reports that in March and April, 73 per cent of calls were answered within 30 seconds.

AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton wrote to all AMA members on 10 April to report on ongoing action by the AMA to eliminate the red tape caused by the PBS Authority system, and the Association had a productive meeting with DHS officials last month.

The Department is now reviewing the questions phone line clerks are required to ask, to ensure each one is actually necessary.

It will review five authority medicines ‘questions sets’ each month in consultation with its medical and pharmaceutical advisors, with the aim of cutting down the time required for each phone call. For example, in April DHS reviewed and updated questions sets for multiple sclerosis medications, as well as for terbinafine, atomoxetine, ivabradine, adrenaline and imiquimod.

DHS also reported that around 5 per cent of calls to the Authority service were for medicines that are now covered by streamlined arrangements and no longer require Authority approval over the phone.

The Department believes that keeping up-to-date with PBS medicines that require phone authority will cut down the number of unnecessary calls and help free up operators.

If you see ‘Authority Required (Streamlined)’ marked against a medicine in the PBS, click on it to find the four digit code for the relevant clinical indication and include it on your prescription.

Already, 95 per cent of doctors are doing this.

The top ten streamlined authority medicines for which the Department receives unnecessary calls are:

– smoking cessation related drugs: Nicotine, Nicabate P, Nicot Step 1 and Nicotine Patch;

– anti-dementia drugs: galantamine and donepezil;

– anti-thrombotic agents: rivaroxaban and clopidogrel;

– pregabalin; and

– quetiapine.

Those who use prescribing software provided by Best Practice and Medical Directors should also note that the Department has received some reports from prescribers that this software may not be providing prescribers with the streamlined authority code alert for some streamlined medicines.

If you notice your practice software does not reflect the latest PBS information, contact your software vendor and advise the Department on customer.feedback@humanservices.com.au.

Moving more medicines into streamlined approval arrangements is an encouraging development, but we need to keep the pressure on DHS to allocate proper resources to the phone line service.

As always, the AMA welcomes member feedback.

But also make sure you report any delays or other complaints about the phone line and its service quality directly to the DHS by sending an email to: customer.feedback@humanservices.gov.au

This email address also appears in the right hand column of the AMA homepage (www.ama.com.au) for your reference and ease of use.

You can make sure Health Minister Peter Dutton and Human Services Minister Marise Payne have a clear picture of the impact on doctors by copying them into your email: Minister.Dutton@health.gov.au and minister@humanservices.gov.au

The AMA knows just how frustrated doctors are with the PBS Authority system, and is pushing hard for action. The system should either be scrapped or, at the least, drastically overhauled to minimise the inconvenience and time wasting it causes for doctors and their patients.