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Private health cover needed for counselling and psychotherapy

The Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) has joined with the Australian Counselling Association (ACA) to request eight of the major private health funds to provide better private health cover for counselling and psychotherapy.

PACFA and ACA, as peak bodies for the counselling and psychotherapy profession, have requested the private health funds to offer their customers rebates for counselling and psychotherapy services provided by appropriately registered counsellors and psychotherapists.

The private health funds approached in the campaign are: Australian Health Management, Australian Unity, BUPA, GMHBA, HBF, HCF, Medibank Private and NIB.

If supported by the private health funds, the proposal would result in greater access to essential treatment services for common mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and substance misuse.

Maria Brett, PACFA Executive Officer said “Available evidence shows that increasing numbers of Australians are struggling with mental illness. One in five Australians experiences a mental illness every year and almost half of all Australians will experience mental illness at some time in their life”.

There is also evidence that many physical ailments have a psychological component. Research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that the 1.8 million people who had back problems in 2007-08 were 2.5 times more likely to experience depression, 1.8 times more likely to suffer from anxiety and 1.3 times more likely to report substance misuse.

Recent cut-backs to counselling services under the Better Access Initiative have seen a reduction in access to counselling through Medicare. Concerns also remain that the services offered through Medicare are not adequate to meet the wide range of mental health needs within the community.

Maria Brett said “Consumers have very limited choice in relation to the treatments they can access as Medicare-funded services are limited to Focussed Psychological Strategies. Researchers have found real limitations in the effectiveness of some of these strategies, in particular Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Interpersonal Therapy. These treatments are also not suitable for a range of issues such as relationship difficulties, eating disorders, trauma and personality disorders.”

Consumers with private health insurance do not enjoy much better choices. Currently, private health insurance rebates for counselling and psychotherapy are very limited. Rebates are usually restricted to psychologists and are only offered to customers with premium health insurance products. This severely limits client choice as rebates are only available to customers who wish to see a psychologist and who can afford to pay for premium insurance products.

“Rebates for counselling and psychotherapy should be offered even under “budget” Extras and Wellness policies as basic cover for mental health should really be seen as essential to health and wellbeing, like basic dental or optical cover” Ms Brett said.

Ms Brett added “When it comes to choosing a therapist, the appropriate type of treatment, or the length of treatment required, a consumer’s choice will vary greatly depending on their presenting issues, age, temperament, cultural background and geographic location. All of these factors may lead a client to choose a counsellor or psychotherapist registered with PACFA or ACA instead of the standard treatment options available under Medicare.”

Registered counsellors and psychotherapists have the appropriate level of training and education required to practise as counsellors or psychotherapists; they meet annual professional development and supervision requirements; they adhere to the Code of Ethics of either PACFA or ACA and are subject to disciplinary procedures in the event of ethical breaches.

“There is no clinical basis for restricting private health insurance rebates for psychological services exclusively to psychologists as the evidence shows that counsellors and psychotherapists achieve positive treatment outcomes with clients experiencing high levels of psychological distress.”

“Right now there is the opportunity for at least one these private health funds to take the lead by offering rebates for counselling and psychotherapy” Ms Brett said. “Private health insurance has the potential to make a significant difference to the mental health of the Australian community, with the associated improvements in general health and wellbeing”.

“There will also be financial savings for the health system flowing on from prevention of more serious mental health issues and from general improvements in health and well-being as a result of greater access to counselling and psychotherapy.”

Maria Brett concluded: “In the current climate of public concern about the lack of resources being committed to mental health, it is arguable that private health insurance companies cannot afford not to be part of the solution in this important public health issue”.

PACFA and ACA are running a letter-writing campaign to raise awareness of this issue with the private health funds. “Anyone in the community who wants to access private health insurance rebates for counselling and psychotherapy should write to their private health fund today to ask for these rebates. Pro-forma letters are available at the PACFA website” Ms Brett said.

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