The college has welcomed a Federal Government’s decision to defer a new rule designed to limit the number of telehealth phone consultations GPs can carry out.
The new 30/20 prescribed pattern of services rule was announced in December 2021 when the Department of Health (DoH) outlined details of how telehealth would become a permanent feature of the health system.
It would have meant any GP giving more than 30 daily telephone consultations on 20 days or more during a 12-month period would be referred to the Professional Services Review (PSR).
The new rule was due to come into effect from 1 January 2022; however, it has now been deferred at least until 1 July due to rapidly escalating COVID cases and the reliance many general practices are likely to have on phone consultations.
RACGP President Dr Karen Price believes the decision, for which the college strongly advocated, is the right one in the current circumstances.
‘We know that GPs are facing unprecedented pressures at the moment – as well playing a pivotal part in the booster rollout, general practices are now helping to manage the health of tens of thousands of COVID patients in the community,’ Dr Price said.
‘Telephone consultations have been a vital tool in the pandemic response since they were introduced and, if anything, will be even more crucial with the spike in cases we are currently seeing.
‘While we’re delighted that telehealth has been confirmed as permanent part of the health system, the college had real concerns about how this new rule would play out for patients during outbreaks.
‘So we’re very pleased the Department of Health has heeded RACGP calls and deferred this for the time being.
‘It will give GPs the breathing space to keep giving the essential care we know they deliver so well under the extraordinary circumstances we’re in right now without having to look over their shoulder for PSR referrals.’
The DoH confirmed the deferral in an email on 31 December 2021.
‘As we have experienced often in the last couple of years, the circumstances of the COVID pandemic have changed, and the Government is responding to modify our approach to MBS telehealth arrangements as we have done when needed over the last couple of years,’ the email reads.
The DoH said the 30/20 rule is ‘intended to promote high-quality care and limit telephone-based business models which could impact on the viability of comprehensive practices’. However, the spread of COVID-19 caused by the arrival of highly transmissible Omicron variant prompted the DoH to reconsider the approach.
‘We will potentially have a large number of COVID-positive people with lower acuity who can be most effectively managed via telehealth in the community,’ the DoH wrote.
‘The Government does not want concerns about PSR referrals preventing doctors from providing telehealth services to COVID-positive patients.’
There are currently more than half a million active COVID cases in Australia, with infection numbers increasing rapidly in all states and territories except for Western Australia.
The permanent introduction of telehealth was confirmed last month when the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced $106 million to facilitate its ongoing integration into the health system.
Updated Medicare compliance rules were published shortly afterwards, adding telehealth services to the established 80/20 rule, and introducing the new 30/20 rule for phone consultations.