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Ley wants ‘bipartisan national approach’ to mental health

The Federal Government wants to set up an all-government working group dedicated to overhauling the nation’s dysfunctional mental health system following a searing critique from the National Mental Health Commission.

Health Minister Sussan Ley said the Commission’s “disturbing” analysis showed clear failures in the system, and argued the need for a co-ordinated national approach to improve the care of the mentally ill.

“The National Mental Health Commission’s Review…paints a complex, fragmented, and in parts, disturbing picture of Australia’s mental health system,” Ms Ley said. “I acknowledge there are clear failures within both the mental health sector and governments, and we must all share the burden of responsibility and work together to rectify the situation.”

The Minister said the scale of the problem meant it required more than a band-aid approach, and that consultation and collaboration between governments was essential.

“I intend to seek bipartisan agreement to revive a national approach to mental health at tomorrow’s COAG meeting of Health Ministers,” she said.

In its four-volume report, released by the Government today, the Commission questioned the effectiveness of almost $10 billion spent each year on mental health services, and urged an increased focus on prevention and early intervention.

“It is clear the mental health system has fundamental structural shortcomings,” the review said. “The overall impact of a poorly planned and badly integrated system is a massive drain on peoples’ wellbeing and participation in the community.”

The Commission has argued that changing to a “stepped care approach” with a major focus on prevention and early intervention would reduce the severity and duration of mental health issues, ultimately slowing demand for expensive acute hospital care and lowering the incidence of long-term disability.

Controversially, the Commission recommended the Commonwealth reallocate “a minimum” of $1 billion from acute hospital funding to community-based mental health services from 2017-18.

But AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler has rejected the suggestion, warning that public hospitals were already under-resourced.

Earlier today A/Professor Owler released the AMA’s annual Public Hospital Report Card showing the nation’s hospitals are struggling to meet performance benchmarks under pressure from a remorseless increase in demand from patients and a squeeze on funding.

The Report found there had been improvements in patient waiting times for treatment, by the AMA President warned these gains were threatened by the Federal Government’s move to take almost $3 billion from public hospital finding by 2017, and to cut the indexation rate of its subsequent contributions.

A/Professor Owler said the changes were creating a “perfect storm” for the nation’s public hospitals, and would inevitably lead to longer waiting times for patients.

State and Territory leaders are expected to confront Prime Minister Tony Abbott over reduced hospital funding at tomorrow’s heads of government meeting amid estimated the Commonwealth changes will short-change them by $57 billion.

Bt Ms Ley moved to allay at least some of their concerns by rejecting the Commission’s suggestion to reallocate a further $1 billion from hospitals.

“The Government does not intend to pursue the proposed $1 billion shift of funding from state acute care to community organisations, as we want to work collaboratively in partnership with other levels of Government,” the Minister said. “While many recommendations offer positive ideas, others are not conducive to a unified national approach.”

Adrian Rollins