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Mental health funding in the 2017 budget is too little, unfair and lacks a coherent strategy

Mental health remains chronically underfunded. from shutterstock.com

Mental health funding in the 2017 budget is too little, unfair and lacks a coherent strategy

This week’s federal budget allocated A$115 million in new funding over four years. This is one of the smallest investments in the sector in recent years.

For instance, the Council of Australian Governments (CoAG) added more than $5.5 billion to mental health spending in 2006. The 2011-12 federal budget provided $2.2 billion in new funding.

This compounds a situation in which, in 2014-15, mental health received around 5.25% of the overall health budget while representing 12% of the total burden of disease. There is no reason those figures should exactly match, but the gap is large and revealing.

They speak to the fact mental health remains chronically underfunded. Mental health’s share of overall health spending was 4.9% in 2004-05. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, funding has changed very little over the past decade.

We lack a coherent national strategy to tackle mental health. New services have been established this year, but access to them may well depend on where you live or who is looking after you. This is chance, not good planning.

Hospital-based services

The general focus of care when it comes to mental health remains hospital-based services. Inpatient – when admitted to hospital – and outpatient clinic care or in the emergency room represent the bulk of spending. (The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare includes hospital outpatient services under the heading “Community”, which makes definitive estimates of the proportion of funding impossible.)

Outside of primary care such as general practice, or Medicare-funded services (such as psychology services provided under a mental health care plan), mental health services in the community are hard to find.

An encouraging aspect of this year’s budget is the government’s recognition of this deficiency. The largest element of new mental health spending was a commitment to establish a pool of $80 million to fund so-called psychosocial services in the community.

As Treasurer Scott Morrison said in his budget speech, this money is for:

Australians with a mental illness such as severe depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia and post-natal depression resulting in a psychosocial disability, including those who had been at risk of losing their services during the transition to the NDIS.

Yet, the money is contingent on states and territories matching federal funds, meaning up to $160 million could be made available over the next four years if the states all chip in with their share of $80 million. But this commitment was made “noting that states and territories retain primary responsibility for CMH [community mental health] services”. Whether the states agree is another matter.

This new funding seems partly a response to the federal transfer of programs such as Partners in Recovery and Personal Helpers and Mentors to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Both these programs offered critical new capacity to community organisations to provide mental health services and better coordinate care.

Partners in Recovery was established in the 2011-12 budget with $550 million to be spent over five years. Personal Helpers and Mentors (along with other similar programs) was established in the same year with $270 million in funding over five years.

With these programs now (or soon to be) cordoned off to recipients of NDIS packages, the 2017 budget measure appears to be designed to offset their loss. However, not all states may choose to match the federal funds. And some may choose to do so but try to use new federal funds to reduce their own overall mental health spending.

States already vary in the types of services they offer. All this raises the prospect that people’s access to, and experience of, mental health care is likely to vary considerably depending on where they live. In a budget espousing fairness, this is a recipe for inequity.

Lack of coherent strategy

The budget does attempt to improve the uneven distribution of mental health professionals by providing $9 million over four years to enable psychology services to rural areas though telehealth. It’s well known mental health services in the bush are inadequate.

This investment seems sensible, but $9 million pales in comparison to spending on the Better Access Program, which I have calculated to be $15 million each week. This program provides Medicare subsidies for face-to-face mental health services under mental health care plans. While this program is available for those in rural areas, accessing it is more difficult than in cities.

This budget’s commitment to mental health shows a lack of an overarching strategy. Rather than offering a coherent approach to mental health planning, this budget continues Australia’s piecemeal, patchwork structure, where the system is driven mostly by who pays rather than what works or is needed.

The development of a national community mental health strategy would be most welcome now. This would demonstrate how the primary and tertiary mental health sectors will join up to provide the blend of clinical, psychological and social support necessary to finally enable people with a mental illness to live well in the community.

You could be forgiven for thinking that, albeit slowly, the well-known problems in mental health across Australia are being addressed. But the small pool of funding in this year’s budget says otherwise. And the lack of coherent strategy is a shame. You can’t complete a jigsaw puzzle if you keep adding new pieces.