Rural Health body wants rebate expansion

THE peak body for rural health has urged the Abbott government to expand Medicare rebates to include telehealth sessions with psychologists for regional Australians.

As Health Minister Sussan Ley continues talks with the health industry on the future of Medicare, the National Rural Health Alliance has set out three of its desired outcomes.

ABS data shows the rate of suicide in rural areas of the nation is 66% higher than in major cities, and the alliance has urged action to address the problem.

In a statement, it said part of the problem was access to mental health care, with the number of psychologists in rural areas only 60% of that in major cities.

"Where help is available, it is not always taken up," the statement reads.

"People in rural areas are more likely to hold back from seeking help for fear of the stigma sometimes associated with mental illness and their 'rural stoicism'.

"As a consequence, mental illness may be diagnosed and treated later in its course, potentially increasing the risk of self-harm."

The alliance has called on the government to expand access to Medicare rebates for telehealth services delivered by psychologists and guarantee mental health first aid training for rural financial counsellors.

It also called for more online culturally appropriate mental health resources for indigenous Australians, to be developed with indigenous health experts.

Alliance chief executive officer Gordon Gregory said the proposals were "cost-effective" and practical measures that would make a difference to the wellbeing of rural residents.

The alliance said the disparity of suicide between city residents and rural and remote Australians was "particularly marked" in some demographics.

It said farmers were twice as likely to die by suicide as the general employed public and the suicide rate among young men outside major cities was twice the rate of those in cities.

While Ms Ley, a rural MP herself, promised no specific initiatives, she has travelled to regional areas in recent weeks. She also promised consultation before any new policies were announced.

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