Since the mid-1990s, federal and state/territory governments have been working together, through the National Mental Health Strategy and successive National Mental Health Plans, to coordinate mental health care at the national level. In July 2006, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed to strengthen the capacity of the mental health service system through a range of actions outlined in the COAG National Action Plan on Mental Health 2006-2011.

The Better Access to Psychiatrists, Psychologists and General Practitioners through the Medicare Benefits Schedule (Better Access) initiative is part of the Australian Government's contribution to the COAG National Action Plan. Introduced in November 2006, the Better Access initiative provided changes to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) and introduced education and training for the mental health workforce. It aimed to encourage more general practitioners (GPs) to participate in the provision of mental health services, improve access to psychiatrists and enhance the availability and affordability of psychological services provided by psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists in private practice.

Changes to the MBS introduced in November 2006, and refined in the 2009-10 Federal Budget, provide a structured framework within which GPs can provide early intervention, assessment and management of people with mental disorders, and refer to community based mental health care providers. These changes include:

  • a range of new GP Mental Health treatment items to better remunerate GPs for the time to effectively manage and provide quality mental health care to their patients;

  • a new item for psychiatrist consultation with a new patient referred by a GP, coupled with expanded rebates for existing items related to patient assessment and preparation or review of a treatment plan to be carried out by a GP; and

  • new items for allied mental health services – Psychological Therapy (eligible clinical psychologists) and Focussed Psychological Strategies (eligible psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists).
The Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA) engaged a number of external consultants to assist with the Evaluation of the Better Access to Psychiatrists, Psychologists and General Practitioners through the Medicare Benefits Schedule (Better Access) initiative. The evaluation was undertaken to assess the accessibility, appropriateness and effectiveness of primary mental health care provided to people with diagnosed mental health disorders under the Better Access initiative.

A modular approach to the evaluation is being undertaken examining consumers and their outcomes; analysis of MBS and PBS data; analysis of allied health workforce supply and distribution; stakeholder consultation; evaluation of major education and training projects; and analysis of the Second National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing.